Prisons: it’s time to reform and reduce population

Federal courts are telling California that we are out of time when it comes to reducing inmate overcrowding.  The Legislature and the Governor agree that we are out of money, and have cut $1.2 billion from the Corrections budget.  Now is the time for elected officials and law enforcement to come together and pass criminal justice reforms that will safely reduce our inmate population.

 Inmate “early release” is a radioactive term, and something that everyone wants to avoid.  Yet, a three judge court ruling issued last week seeks to impose a cap that could force the release of upwards of 40,000 inmates over the next two years.  While the state will likely appeal the ruling, lawmakers should not sit idly by and leave it up to the courts.  The recent riot in Chino demonstrates the perils of severe overcrowding.  California needs a package of sensible prison, parole and sentencing reforms that will allow our prisons to reduce population over time without swinging open the gates for serious and violent criminals and jeopardizing the safety of our communities.

 The best minds in California and the nation have already provided us with recommendations.  Five years ago, the Deukmejian Commission outlined ways that we can target resources on higher risk offenders and reduce costs, without increasing crime rates.  An expert panel convened by the Schwarzenegger Administration has given us a roadmap to reducing recidivism.  The Administration has adopted the recommendations of both these groups  in drafting its current reform proposals.

 The one remaining piece of the puzzle is the passage of these population and budget reduction proposals.  When the Legislature returns next week, public safety reforms must be a focal point of discussion.

 Over the past several months, the Administration has worked with law enforcement stakeholders to refine a plan that we believe can reduce the prison population by up to 27,000 inmates this year, and 37,000 through 2009-10, and avert the early release that has been widely feared with the following five key components:
 •    Risked based parole supervision to reduce agent to parolee caseloads while maintaining law enforcement’s search and seizure rights on non-serious, low-risk parolees;

•    House arrest or alternative custody with GPS for elderly or infirmed inmates, or low-level offenders with 12 months or less remaining;

•    Commutation to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody of criminal alien felons who can be immediately deported to their country of origin if they’re not prosecuted by the feds;

•    Changing sentencing for low level offenders convicted of writing bad checks, petty theft with a prior, receiving stolen property, and vehicle theft so that they don’t occupy $48,000 per year state prison beds for low-level property crimes, and raising the grand theft threshold for the first time since 1982 from $400 to $2,500; and,

•    Motivating low-level offenders to complete in-prison GED, vocational, or substance abuse programs by offering up to six weeks off of the end of their sentences.

 In addition to these population reduction strategies, CDCR is slashing operational costs.  We are cutting over 400 positions from headquarters, reducing our programs budget by $250 million, curtailing overtime and sick leave abuse, and increasing efficiencies across the agency.  

 It is the duty of California’s elected officials and appointed representatives of the people to make these tough decisions on budgeting for public safety resources.  We cannot let the courts exert further control over our system, or allow this critical situation to worsen.  With a $1.2 billion hole in our departments budget that needs to be plugged immediately, and the price of inaction mounting at over $100 million a month or more, lawmakers cannot afford to wait any longer.  

 If California is to avoid court-ordered early release, and have the resources to keep serious, violent, and sex offenders locked up, our elected officials need to pass a sensible package of smart-on-crime bills in the coming weeks that allow us to reduce our prison population on our own terms.

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