Out of time, out of money: CA prisons need reforms now

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) plan to reduce the prison population contains some good ideas, but it won’t add up to the $1.2 billion in needed savings. There are also serious flaws with the plan that will actually cost the state more money. It’s time to reject the gimmicks and the political posturing and implement real reform that actually improves public safety.

Here are the problems with the CDCR plan and how we can do better.

The CDCR proposes increased sentence credits for completing rehabilitation programs. Great idea, but why is the CDCR also proposing the near elimination of funding for these programs? Without programs, inmates will get fewer credits—not more—will stay in prison longer, and will hit the streets without preparation for life on the outside. We must maintain funding for all rehabilitation programs, which means we must make up these cuts elsewhere.

The CDCR thinks over one third of the population reduction will come from deporting inmates. But the CDCR can’t decide who will be deported—only the federal government can. The CDCR has no way of knowing who is a citizen or lawful resident and who is not. We can’t count on the federal government to fix our mess, we have to find ways to reduce the population and save money ourselves.

The CDCR plans to use GPS monitoring for elderly and infirmed inmates, and low-level offenders. But GPS monitoring is inappropriate and a waste of money for these individuals. GPS monitoring requires resource-intense supervision by parole agents and should be reserved for serious offenders, not sick old men in hospital beds. These individuals should be removed from prison, but without wasting state money on unnecessary GPS monitoring that is being proposed only for political purposes.

Changing four petty property crimes to misdemeanors—rather than offenses that can be charged as felonies—and increasing the threshold for property crimes to be considered felonies is a good start. But the CDCR considered 73 similar offenses and only proposed converting four to misdemeanors. That leaves dozens of nonviolent offenses that can still result in lengthy and expensive prison sentences including nonviolent property crimes like forgery, embezzlement, and vandalism. Converting a larger number of crimes to straight misdemeanors will save $700 million each year.

It’s also a good start for the CDCR to focus parole resources on serious offenders, and place the low-level, non-violent offenders on “banked” parole. But we need to go further to save serious money. Nonviolent parolees who do not reoffend or commit violations should be removed from parole after one year. Just eliminating parole for drug possession offenses would reduce the parole population by 25% and save $135 million a year.

If we want real prison population reductions and General Fund savings of over $1 billion a year, then we need to keep petty drug offenders out of prison altogether. Too many low-level drug offenders continue to sit in those $48,000 a year cells. People convicted of simple drug possession, or drug possession with intent to sell, should be handled at the county level, through community service, treatment, probation or some combination.

The single largest inefficiency in the Corrections budget is probably California’s youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), with an annual budget of over $436 million to house and care for just over 1,600 individuals. Youth currently housed in state DJJ prisons should be diverted to county and regional custody options, phasing out DJJ prisons in three years. Half of the current DJJ budget could be allocated to counties as well as a state oversight and enforcement office in order to ensure best practices and actual rehabilitation of these young people. This would result in real savings of $200 million annually.

California’s prison system and our economy are in crisis. Ultimately, we will not fix either unless we seriously overhaul our failed criminal justice system. That’s why we need a balanced sentencing commission, to take the politics out of the public safety debate and put the people back in. We can’t wait any longer. As CDCR Secretary Mathew Cate has said, we are out of time and money.

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