Crime Hikes Don't Cause Prison Crowds

DEC. 31, 2010


We have all seen the TV videos of the overcrowded conditions in California’s prisons. But, do these visuals reflect reality or are they highly managed Hollywood stage sets?

If I told you the Golden State Freeway (I-5) was congested but I didn’t tell you that closing two of the lanes all the way through Los Angeles County was politically contrived it would be pretty obvious I wasn’t telling you the whole story. All you would have to do is turn on the TV news showing a video from a TV news chopper.

If I told you that there was a drought requiring higher water rates in Los Angeles due to water conservation required as a result of a court shutting off water to farms and cities to protect a tiny fish, I wouldn’t be telling you the whole story. If the court was hoodwinked by bogus science and later rescinded its water shut-down order, and water agencies no longer enforced their water conservation ordinances but did not repeal their water rate hikes, you might think that something was fishy.  As they say in the public water business: “Water flows up hill toward money.”

If I showed you photos of overcrowded state prisons it would be difficult, however, to figure out what caused it (e.g., crime wave, lack of prison building, mismanagement, etc.).  Freeways are transparent but the prison and jail systems are sociologically opaque and hard to understand.

Enter stage right Rich McKone, executive officer, California Coalition on Corrections; Parole Agent III, Retired, DC&R, former criminal justice planner, California Council on Criminal Justice & California Youth Authority.  Rich relentlessly patrols the Internet with a mission to correct all the journalistic disinformation out there about prison overcrowding.

McKone writes that like freeways and rivers, the corrections system in California has a flow to it.  The historical direction that inmates flow in the state corrections system is from the state to the counties. But like the proverbial river that flows in reverse towards money, the state has been withholding its flow of inmates to the county jails. Writes McKone:

The prison system budget has been immune to budget scrutiny for so long that it could be reduced by over a billion dollars a year without releasing one inmate early. Just shift the minor offenders who used to be at the county level back to the counties with the state reimbursing counties. If counties put the offenders in correctional contract facilities, each contract bed would save about $22,500 annually compared to a prison bed.

McKone says if the state contracted with counties to take these minor offender prisoners, as do other states, that large savings could be realized without jeopardizing public safety:

Minnesota and Oregon have contracted with counties for parole supervision since the early 1970s. Those parole systems work!

Increasing contract beds from 4 percent of capacity to 9 percent like Texas would save about $310 million annually and avoid spending over $4 billion for prison construction.

Instead, the state is closing contract facilities. Billions could be cut from the prison system budget without any impact on public safety or releasing any inmates early. It only requires the political leadership to resist correctional employee influence, a rare commodity in Sacramento.

According to McKone, overcrowding is not due to a rise in crime:

It should be noted that overcrowding has nothing to do with inmates serving long terms for major crimes. There is plenty of room for all such offenders — none will ever be released due to overcrowding. The prison bed shortage exists only because thousands of less serious offenders (often referred to as wobblers) and parole violators, serving terms of less than a year, have been diverted to prison due to the long-term, severe county jail bed shortage. Basic correctional policy dictates that short-term offenders, absent other factors — usually security, serve their terms in county jail (at far less cost) not prison. These short-term offenders occupy about 30,000 to 40,000 prison beds, causing overcrowding.

McKone writes how a large share of the state structural budget deficit could be fixed by getting the prisoner flows correct:

It’s good news and bad news regarding the budget! It’s bad news that Brown has not even mentioned cuts to the prison system budget. Prison union influence has shielded prison budgets from scrutiny for decades. The good news is that the state can now cut the bloated prison budget by about $7.4 billion without releasing one inmate early! That is now very good news for the UC regents!

The 65,000 county jail bed shortage caused the shift of a third of the jail population to prison where they occupy almost 50,000 expensive beds. Returning these short-term offenders to county operated facilities would reduce annual prison operating costs by $1 billion and avoid $6 billion in prison construction costs. (California has only 3 percent of its inmates in contract facilities compared to 17 percent in the federal prison system.)

The $6 billion in AB900 prison construction bonds could be applied to the deficit.

California’s 35 percent parole violation rate would return to the national average, 20 percent, if parole were transferred to counties saving another $410 million to annual prison operating costs. Brown just needs to be willing to offend an influential political supporter!”

McKone points out the winners and losers in the state prison system:

There are several winners and, of course, taxpayers are the chronic losers. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has controlled prison system policy and operations for decades. The CCPOA provides both money and political support to any politician who supports their agenda. They control some victim groups that attack politicians who are foolish enough to not support their agenda or even oppose it. It is by far the smartest and most effective public employee union in California.

The politicians funded AB900 providing $6.5 billion for prison construction (and $900 million for jail construction) without any review or analysis. In addition to the CCPOA being a winner, there is probably at least one prison construction corporation enjoying sole source construction contracts. The original planning estimates were based on $100,000 per bed for construction but apparently at least some of the new beds are running about $300,000 per bed for construction according to the Legislative Analyst (LAO). Incidentally, the LAO reported that AB900 would result in a 32,000-prison bed surplus when fully implemented.

The main issue is that the actual correctional bed shortage is at the county level not in prison.

So the next time you watch one of those TV newscasts where they show you crowded state prisons you will have to understand that prisoners flow upstream toward money.

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