CA inmate reduction plan shuns out-of-state prisons, other options
By Katy Grimes
You’ve heard of the Millionaire Next Door? Now meet the Criminal Next Door.
In what appears to be a nod to the powerful prison guards union, California is shunning sending prison inmates to lower cost, out-of-state prisons to reduce the overcrowded prison population. Instead, it’s releasing “non-violent,” “non-sexual,” “low-level” criminals out onto the streets and into minor parole programs.
In the 2006 class-action case Coleman vs. Schwarzenegger, a three-judge U.S. District Court ordered a large cut in the prison population. It found that overcrowded prison conditions were the cause of severely inadequate inmate health care. The order also imposed a population cap on California’s prisons.
Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California sent prisoners to prisons in other states. The out-of-state prison cost savings over what it costs per bed in a California prison was significant. But since Gov. Jerry Brown was elected, this practice has been curtailed. Outsourcing of the state’s prisoners on a large scale apparently is not a politically feasible option for the Brown administration.
“Prison realignment” has been in the news since 2010, the year Brown was elected. In office, he immediately was faced with an ongoing federal court order to deal with California’s overcrowded prisons. But what exactly is prison realignment, what was it supposed to do, and is it working?
“Realignment” shift in thinking
In 2011, AB 109, the prison realignment law, was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Brown. AB 109 was supposed to shift “low-level,” “non-violent,” and “non-sexual” inmates from state prisons to county jails. Many inmates then were shifted to county probation departments for post-release supervision.
But AB 109 also required some felons released from prison be placed on post-release community supervision instead of state parole. A largely ignored result of AB 109 is that nearly half of these “non-violent offenders” had previously been incarcerated for serious crimes. But parole supervision is now based entirely on an inmate’s current conviction, not on cumulative crimes for which he had served prison time in the past.
Before the realignment law was passed, parole violators were transferred to state prisons, where they faced up to a year in custody. This no longer happens under prison realignment.
Release versus out-of-state prisons
Instead of releasing prisoners, California could reduce its corrections costs significantly by transferring inmates to lower-cost facilities out of state. “Expanding this strategy by transferring an additional 25,000 low- to medium-security inmates to such facilities—5,000 per year for five years—would result in an estimated savings of between $111 million and $120 million for the first year of the prisoner transfer plan, and between $1.7 billion and $1.8 billion in savings by the end of year five,” according to a study by the Reason Foundation.
The study continued, “Based on correctional partnership experiences across the nation and the globe, California could reasonably and conservatively expect to realize cost savings of between 5 and 15% from outsourcing its correctional services. Applying this savings range to the state’s current (Fiscal Year 2009-10) corrections operating budget of $8,233,620,000 yields estimated savings of between $412 million and $1.24 billion per year….
“The potential savings may be even greater than this. First, California prison guards’ salaries and benefits are higher than those of their counterparts in other states, so contracting should realize greater personnel cost savings (particularly from fringe benefits) than in other places.
“Second, there is a large discrepancy in CDCR’s self-reported average costs per inmate per day and other data the agency has reported on its operational budget and inmate population, suggesting that the state may be underreporting its true per diem costs. California’s self-reported average cost per inmate per day is $133, but the cost calculated by simply dividing the correctional operating budget by the number of inmates is $162. By contrast, as noted above, the per diem rate received by private firms in recent contracts ranges from $60 to $75.”
Yet, California sends a much higher percentage of repeat offenders back to prisons and jails than other states.
Releasing prisoners has not worked
Fast forward to last week. Rather than using out-of-state prisons to help reduce California’s prison population, Brown’s administration told the federal court that the state Legislature would have to agree to dramatically restructure California’s corrections system.
Brown, under a threat of contempt of court by the federal judges if he did not implement a plan to meet the prison population cap by December, submitted a late-night report.
“In a 46-page brief filed shortly before midnight Thursday, state officials outlined how they would reduce the prison population by about 10,000 inmates over the next year, hoping to satisfy a three-judge panel that last month blasted the governor for failing to comply with a 2009 order requiring California to reduce its prison population to about 110,000 by this summer,” the San Jose Mercury News reported.
California’s 33 prisons currently house 119,506 inmates. But the prisons were designed for 79,959 inmates. The federal court has ordered another 9,500 inmates cut by Dec. 31.
Brown recently filed a motion to vacate or modify the reduction order, but it was denied by the federal court.
Some rapists, molesters doing little or no time
Brown signed AB 109 only two years ago to “stop the costly, ineffective and unsafe ‘revolving door’ of lower-level offenders and parole violators through our state prisons.”
Republicans fought realignment, and now are focused on the many serious problems caused by it.
Due to sweeping changes in California’s criminal justice system, paroled rapists, molesters and other sex offenders statewide are often doing little or no jail time for violating the terms of their release, according to state records and interviews with parole agents, according to Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber.
The law also prevents habitual criminals convicted of new felonies such as assault, auto theft, drug dealing, identity theft, fraud and commercial burglary from receiving prison sentences. Instread the offenders are get sentences in overcrowded county jails, probation or “treatment” in county-managed rehabilitation programs, according to the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
Mentally ill inmates
On Tuesday, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told reporters he wanted more money spent on the Integrated Services for Mentally Ill Parolees program. But his plan would not be considered by the District Court as part of the overcrowding order. The program is run by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees the prison system.
“Fifteen hundred and two individuals have been enrolled in the program,” Steinberg said. “Only 359, or 24 percent, are re-incarcerated or rearrested.”
Steinberg’s plan also calls for more money to be provided for mental health services in the community, including 2,000 crisis treatment beds in a neighborhood setting, KCRA Channel 3 reported.
Steinberg said the funding would come from the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare); California’s Proposition 63, the 2004 initiative that increased mental health spending; and the state general fund.
Early release or transfers to out-of-state prisons?
It appears that the Brown administration is ignoring the viable option of transferring prisoners to out-of-state prisons. Steinberg’s plan to address the important issue of prisoners with mental illness is an important component to prison overcrowding, and should be considered by the federal court as addressing the overcrowding issue.
Brown’s administration has to submit a report by July 30 on what actions have been undertaken to identify inmates who might be candidates for early release or are unlikely to re-offend.
However, the federal judges stated that if California does not reduce the prison population to the mandated level by the July 30 deadline, “this system will permit defendants to nevertheless comply with the order through the release of low-risk prisoners.”
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Rodney T. Smith, PhD, is a consulting economist in Claremont for Stratecon, Inc. Smith also runs a unique blog called