More CDCR Cuts in New Budget Deal: California Police Chiefs Wage War on Potential Inmate Release

The new California budget deal has been struck yesterday, and among other policies, it includes $1.2 billion in unallocated cuts to CDCR. While the San Jose Mercury reports that inmate release is not explicitly mentioned as one of the cuts, the broad issue is still on the table. As expected, some are not thrilled with this humonetarian move. The Sac Bee reports:

The campaign, expected to consist of thousands of phone calls, targets Democrats who plan to run for higher office next year, represent hotly contested districts, or who have been sympathetic or outspoken about law enforcement issues in years past.
“Frankly, it will not be possible for anyone who votes for the early release of felons to ever be taken seriously on public safety issues again,” the campaign said in a memo to participants.
As part of a much larger plan to bridge the budget gap, the prison agreement would cut $1.2 billion from the prison system, which Melekian and other opponents fear could release more than 19,000 prisoners before their sentences expire.
“The concern is that the only way that you get to that amount of money is to release people from prison,” Melekian said.
He said police chiefs are also concerned that there is no money available to help with prisoners’ return to society.
“There’s no money for job training – there’s no money to do anything to transition these folks from institutional life to life back in the community,” he said. “It’s more than just releasing them. It’s releasing them with no real plan for dealing with them.”
Also see the report from UPI.

While releases of non-violent offenders would do good to a system that had no business locking up so many people in the first place, the concerns regarding reentry are certainly warranted. The time to think about reentry options for these released inmates is now.

Correctional Budget Cuts at the Local Level: Decrowding Shasta County Jail

(Shasta County Jail building image from the Sheriff’s website)

Not long ago we discussed the plan to shift state prisoners into local facilities, as well as the local resistance to the plan. This may not be as feasible as the Governor’s office believes, since many local facilities face financial difficulties of their own.

This morning’s Redding Record Searchlight reports on more humonetarian occurrences on the local level.

According to the Shasta County Sheriff’s website, the Shasta County Jail is a high security facility, with a capacity of 381 inmates, 317 males and 64 females. It seems that this capacity has been reached through aggressive parole revocation operations, and the plan now is to scale back on jail time and on parole operations to relieve the budgetary distress.

Here is what seems to be going on:

Shasta County’s drunken drivers, petty thieves and drug users are less likely to serve jail time. Parolees will be given a bit more leeway on violations that can send them back to prison. And even fewer prisoners police bring to the Shasta County jail will spend a night in a cell.

Local officials say that’s the reality now that Shasta County’s 381-bed jail is 150 inmates smaller.

As jailers have been quickly and quietly working to release a third of the inmates from the jail because of budget cuts, local law enforcement officials have been meeting to plan how they’re going to deal with the sudden loss of space at the already chronically full jail.

The decision to clear out a floor of the jail came earlier this month after the Shasta County Board of Supervisors refused Sheriff Tom Bosenko’s pleas to find other ways to trim from the county’s general fund budget rather than make him cut more than $2 million cut from his budget.

Bosenko has since ordered the floor closed and the layoffs of six jail employees.

Jailers began freeing up jail space almost immediately after the decision, mainly by stepping up their “capacity-release” program that lets newly admitted prisoners go free, often before they’d even had time to post bail.

“We’re trying not to do a mass release,” said Lt. Sheila Ashmun, the jail’s second-in-command.

More Resistance to the Plan to Reduce “Wobbler” Offenses to Misdemeanors

The proposal to prosecute “wobbler” offenses as misdemeanors, and thus reduce prison population (or, at least, juke the stats so that it appears that prison population is reduced) is encountering opposition not only from local jails. This time, the resistance comes from the Santa Cruz District Attorney, Bob Lee. The CDCR disagrees. Central Coast reports:

Examples of the penal code sections that would be revised, if state legislators agree, include fraud, forgery, grand theft, identity theft, auto theft, owning a “chop shop,” destruction of utility lines, making a false bomb report and possession of methamphetamine, Lee said.

“This amounts to sacrificing public safety to put the fiscal house in order and that is extremely bad policy,” Lee said.

State prison officials say the proposal and two others would ease overcrowding by sending an estimated 19,000 to jail instead of prison. The current prison population is about 167,000 and they estimate the change would shave $400 million from $10 billion prison budget.

“I think most people would agree that public safety is the No. 1 role of government,” said Seth Unger, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “But in a time of very limited resources, we have to focus those resources on higher risk offenders.”

This controversy is illustrative of the very different ways in which politicians and managers view corrections. For more on this stuff, I strongly recommend Katherine Beckett’s Making Crime Pay, which tracks down correctional discourse since the late 1960s. In the book, Beckett traces two discourses that emerged as a response to the rehabilitative discourse, which had been proven a failure: the political discourse, which was punitive in nature, and which impacted public opinion quite dramatically, and the managerial discourse, which was much more low-key and relied on risk assessment and actuarial techniques to manage the increasing inmate and parolee population. It is not surprising that politicians and managers speak quite differently about crime; their interests and perspectives differ, and they seek legitimacy in different ways. While politicians require high profile messages to impact public opinion, managers have to cope directly with the day-to-day costs and burdens of managing the system.

The current crisis may bring some of these costs and burdens back to the politicians. A few weeks ago we reported on the downscaling of prosecutions in Contra Costa County. More of this may be happening elsewhere, and perhaps changing the chasm between politicians and managers. However, the differences in perspective are still alive.

Local Jails Oppose the Plan to Divert “Wobbler” Offenses Away from State Prisons

A while ago, we reported on the Governor’s plan to divert “wobbler” offenses from state prisons to local jails. As expected, local authorities are reacting very badly to this plan to pass the buck. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Local law-enforcement officials warn that an influx of new inmates could force them to release their own prisoners to make room.

Changing sentencing guidelines would eventually steer 20,000 inmates away from state prisons to county jails, Mr. Schwarzenegger estimates. California’s county jails now hold about 80,000 inmates, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Local governments are hurting for money as badly as the state is — with some of the pain coming as a result of reduced state funding. Many have cut budgets for their own local jails and detention facilities. “It’s like a double whammy the state is sending our way,” said Mike Reagan, a Solano County supervisor. “More prisoners and less money — this is going to hurt like hell.”

Mr. Reagan estimated his county would need to take an additional 1,200 inmates a year under Mr. Schwarzenegger’s plan. That would overwhelm its jail system, which has reached capacity at 1,000 inmates, he said.

Meanwhile, the financial crisis is generating plans that go beyond the non-punitive trend that we have called humonetarianism; it is also generating an abundance of plans that consist of playing with the statistics to make the problem appear smaller, in a manner reminiscent to the classic “juking the stats” scenes from The Wire, which is all too common in the criminal justice system. This category of solutions includes the treatment of undocumented immigrants, and especially the process of handing them to the feds. Engaging in these magic feats – making a population seem to disappear while, in reality, it doesn’t – may prove to be a big mistake. The silver lining of the economic crisis is that it presents an opportunity for change, and hiding our overcrowding problem under the carpet means missing that opportunity completely, at someone else’s expense.


Props to a friend who chooses to remain anonymous for sending the WSJ piece my way.

Passing the Buck? Shifting “Wobbler” Offenders to Local Jails

As the CDCR struggles to handle the dismal budget situation, through the guard layoffs, other initiatives are on the table. While some prison expansions are still scheduled to take place, others have been canceled; and the question of inmate release still hangs in the air.

One thing that is being considered, as the L. A. Times reports, is the Governor’s plan to move inmates from prisons to local jails. The idea is to target a category of offenses known as “wobblers” – offenses that could be classified as felonies or misdemeanors – and classify them as misdemeanors, thus changing the jurisdiction to allow confinement in local jails rather than in state prisons. Local officials, who deal with overcrowded jails, have balked at this option, and the proposal’s fate remains to be seen.

Secretary Cate: Seeking Prison Expansion

The Associated Press reports that Secretary Cate plans to ask state legislators to expand three prisons.

The construction projects would be the first to draw money from a nearly $8 billion bond measure approved two years ago. The money was stalled, though, until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the state budget into law in February.

Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said he plans to seek approval within weeks to build more cellblocks at two prisons near Delano and to convert a juvenile lockup near Paso Robles. Those moves combined would house 2,800 inmates.

The $810 million Cate will seek from legislative budget committees would pay for those three expansions, plus building a re-entry center in Stockton for 500 inmates who are nearing the end of their prison terms. It would be the first of several planned regional re-entry centers to help inmates adjust in the months before they are paroled.

(this was one of the urgent projects seeking approval and financed by bonds approved in 2007, per the L.A. Times)

(and another aspect of the whole thing: prison construction is regarded as one way to generate construction jobs. One person’s problem is another’s salvation).

I have no doubt that prison authorities are sincere in regarding prison expansion as a viable way to reduce overcrowding; however, I can’t help but think about conversations I’ve had with my father, a transport planner, who often marvels at how new roads built to relieve congestion generate incentives to buy more cars, thus increasing traffic. I know the metaphor is not perfect, but it has been preying on my mind.

Defining the Problem

The conference launched yesterday to a great start. Our first panel, Defining the Problem, featured five thoughtful perspectives on the broad picture of the California problem.

Craig Haney, who opened the panel, had some disturbing realities to share with us. He had brought with him – and shared with us on the big screen – pictures from his visits to prison, each of which was really worth a thousand words. Inmates sleeping in cafeterias and gyms; medical examinations conducted in little cages; group therapy in cages inside a bathroom; triple bunks; and unbelievable density. The numbers were quite alarming. While the prisons become more and more overcrowded, crime rates have gone down; as Haney explained, most experts agreed that the rising imprisonment rates did not account for the crime decline. Also, the gap between prison population and prison capacity keeps growing. Haney did a terrific job of tying the California situation to the broader U.S. correctional disease, while highlighting the particulars that made CA a unique situation; particularly, the truly disappointing percentages of people exposed to rehabilitation programs and receiving medical care. And, as per one of the slides in his presentation, we got yet another sobering look at the expanding gaps between non-minorities and minorities in terms of their exposure to the correctional system.

Jeanne Woodford marshaled her extensive experience in prison management to identify three main sources for California’s misery: sentencing policies, uniform policies, and overcrowding. She traced the history of determinate sentencing since the late seventies, pointing to the many deficiencies of our penal code. She also pointed out the lack of coordination between jurisdictions regarding implementation of correctional policies, highlighting the following amazing fact (which I didn’t know): a person could be – and many people are – on probation in several different counties simultaneously, in which case one spends one’s post-incarceration time shuttling between counties several weeks for drug testing and following often contradictory courses of action. Without fact-based policies, and without clear objectives for incarceration beyond “punishment”, wardens and staff cannot be assessed by desirable measures such as decline in recidivism rates or program completion, but rather by how many prisoners escape; not a promising recipe for healthy corrections. Finally, Woodford discussed the fact that overcrowding is not only a problem in itself; it is a complicated factor which exacerbates everything else that happens in the system.

Harold Atkins
from Centerforce was cheered by the audience after providing us with a valuable personal account of the problem from the perspective of one who had gone through it and who now reaches out and educates others. Having gone into prison for the first time as a young adult, he told us of being shocked not only by the lack of personal space, but also by the lack of safety. He also highlighted not only on prison conditions but also on the success of programs; the good fortune to be picked up for a program does not fall into the lap of many, and the programs’ reach is very minimal. The programs themselves, Atkins reminded, should not be implemented without thought; we must test them repeatedly to see what works and make them as widely available as possible. Another thing to consider are his wise words regarding the norms and codes that lead young people into prison; growing up in a difficult neighborhood, at the time of his incarceration he had already been well-schooled in the rules by which prison environment functions. Much of the educational work we have ahead of us needs to happen on the outside.

Frank Zimring followed by delivering a passionate “grumpy sermon” from the podium, in which he shared four important insights. First, the California problem is not an acute one; it is a chronic one. Prison population has been steadily growing for a long time, since the 1980s. Second, and importantly, the problem can be traced to the catastrophic error Zimring labeled the “correctional free lunch”. As Zimring pointed out – and as most amazed audience members had not known before – the “division of labor” between county and state is not conducive to anything helpful. The county decides on the sentence, while the state (who, in the era of determinate sentencing has no control over the length of stay) picks up the cost. Therefore, sentencing does not take into account the broader correctional costs. If this was not shocking enough, the third and fourth insights have to do with the deeper causes for these horrors: they were not part of a broad conspiracy, but rather a combination of complete oversight on the part of the politicians who established determinate sentencing and the logical conclusion of direct democracy in california: citizens do not mind paying to let people rot, but they very much mind paying to make their life nicer. One important answer advocated by Zimring was to establish, as soon as possible, a coherent Penal code, which is not full of “pick and choose” voter-approved policies and special laws, and which is updated to reflect the real severity of crimes.

After these, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate had his work cut out for him, and his reply reflected the kind of concern and thoughtfulness that one expects from someone in charge of a system in serious crisis. The overcrowding challenge, he argued, made everything in prison more difficult, and required serious prioritizing of services. He shared the big dilemmas faced by CDCR in light of the gubernatorial 400,000,000 budget cut. Cutting all programs was not an option, and curring staff was also problematic; one possible answer to the cuts was engage in parole reform. In tems of parole reform, said Cate, we need to pay attention to who we place on parole, and rather than using a general parole policy, reserve parole for serious offenders through identification of crime types (unsurprisingly, sex offenders came up) or more efficient crime indexing. We also need to consider the introduction of credits for achievement in programs on the inside as categories for release. Cate also advocated building more prison cells, particularly for the Level 4 population, as part of the plan to alleviate overcrowding and treat inmates humanely. One thing he had come to learn, said Cate, was that with the given resources – that is, reliance on state employees – capacity would never catch up with population, and community assistance was hugely important.

The audience asked some difficult questions, many of which were addressed to Secretary Cate. One such question involved the elderly and frail prisoners, and whether release policies were not better for this group than creating special wards for them. The other problem raised was that, while prisoners are generally assessed for their medical, mental, dental, and vocational needs, it is very difficult (and, as Atkins’ experience shows, rare) to actually match a prisoner with a befitting program. Another important issue, directed at Zimring, involved an attempt to gauge an “acceptable” number of prisons, which turns out to be a very difficult number to produce.

So… We’re Not the Worst?

This morning’s Sacramento Bee Capitol Alert alerted us to a newly published study by the Pew Center on the States, which has numbers on prison and parole numbers and expenditures in U.S States. Apparently, when looking at numbers per capita, rather than rates, we are not the worst state in terms of incarceration

Nationwide, Pew says, 1 in 31 adults – about 7.3 million men and women altogether – are either behind bars or under parole or probation supervision for crimes. But in California it’s one in 36, slightly below the national average. Even so, that amounts to about 750,000 Californians, with more than a fifth of them in state prison.

Georgia, with one of every 13 adults in the correctional system, has the highest ratio, with Idaho, at one of 18, in second place. At the other end of the scale are New Hampshire, with one of 88 adults, and adjacent Maine at one of 81. Among larger states, Texas and Florida have substantially higher ratios than California while New York is much lower at just one in 53.

In 2008, Pew says, the 34 states “for which data are available” spent about $20 billion on prisons, probation and parole, but for some reason the study omitted California which spends more than half that sum all by itself when probation and parole costs are included.

This, in itself, is not news, in the sense that the per-capita imprisonment rates have appeared earlier in the New York Times. What’s important to stress is that this does not mean there is no cause for concern. Not only should we be concerned about our expenditure on corrections and our inadequate facilities, but every jurisdiction in which 1 in 36 adults is under the state’s punitive apparatus should take a hard, grim look in the mirror, regardless of how other states are doing. The fact that 1 in 13 adults in Georgia is in prison or under law enforcement supervision is no cause for rejoicing in California.
The important question seems to be whether CA is merely a private case of an American affliction, or whether there is something unique to how we do things in this particular state. If the former is correct, and CA is more of an extreme case than an idiosyncrasy, we should also ask ourselves whether these rates of imprisonment correspond with what Frank Zimring calls, in one of his recent books, The Great American Crime Decline. Have we managed to produce a decline in crime because of our imprisonment rates, or is this an unrelated trend? Zimring produces convincing evidence to argue that the decline is a rather complex trend, in which law enforcement and punitive measures play a rather small part. Notwithstanding the important conversations that need to be had on the state level, there is a bigger picture here, and the national war on crime has not, so far, addressed it on a fact-based, informed, moral-panic-free level.
Frank Zimring will be on our opening panel at the upcoming California Correctional Crisis conference. 

Is the Death Penalty Too Expensive?

(image courtesy

The New York Times reports on a trend we’ve already seen here a couple of times: penal reform and punitive measures being abandoned not on their merits, but because of their costs. The article is not California-specific; the picture you see is from Virginia, and the data in the piece come from Maryland.

Nevertheless, the point is an interesting one: whatever the public thinks about the death penalty, it’s expensive, and several states are abandoning it in light of the costs.

Death penalty opponents say they still face an uphill battle, but they are pleased to have allies raising the economic argument.

Efforts to repeal the death penalty are part of a broader trend in which states are trying to cut the costs of being tough on crime. Virginia and at least four other states, for example, are considering releasing nonviolent offenders early to reduce costs.

What about the CA costs? The California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice provides some data. The report offers abundant information on other aspects of death penalty administration, pointing primarily to long delays in carrying sentences and to inadequate representation. However, if the fiscal argument is the one that might win the day, the bottom line is as follows:

The additional cost of confining an inmate to death row, as compared to the maximum security prisons where those sentenced to life without possibility of parole ordinarily serve their sentences, is $90,000 per year per inmate. With California’s current death row population of 670, that accounts for $63.3 million annually.

The report makes a variety of suggestions regarding reforms in death penalty administration, including guarantees for adequate representation. Those in themselves might be quite costly, and the public might be as reluctant to implement them as the legislators were when they killed the planned expansion to the San Quentin Death Row just a little while ago. One wonders how the new trend in other states may play out in California, or at least in counties in which the prosecution actually seeks the death penalty.

Seven Nagging Questions about the Post-Plata/Coleman World

1. Is this really going to happen after the final decision, or will we all wait for the appeal, which will surely come?

2. If we are about to dramatically relieve prison overcrowding, how do we guarantee that people don’t end up back in prison anyway, due to parole violations, and with precious little reentry resources?
3. Doesn’t the decision render the release part of Prop 9 pretty much irrelevant?
5. How large is the backlash going to be?
7. If we’re worried about recidivism among released inmates, isn’t it better to systematically find out what works in the real world, rather than work with simplistic, imaginary models?
Do you have any nagging questions about the aftermath of the District Court’s decision? Please post them in the comments, and we’ll try and answer them together.