Reforming Corrections: We’ve only just begun

The Legislature finally broke through nearly impassable political barriers and in September enacted a set of evidence-based reforms to California’s correctional system.  These reforms make common-sense revisions, like updating some property crime thresholds to reflect the cost of living, many of which had not been changed since 1982.  They refocus parole to apply limited resources on higher-risk offenders, and will improve how parolees are supervised, including the use of a “Parole Reentry Court” for parolees with substance abuse or mental illness histories.  Prison credit laws have been retooled to create incentives for inmates to follow prison rules and programs.  

Legislation enacted this year will launch an innovative system of performance-based funding for supervising adult felony probationers.  About 40 percent of new prison admissions are offenders who failed felony probation.  SB 678 (Leno – Benoit) provides a formula for sharing state savings with probation when those savings are achieved because of reduced prison admissions attributable to better felony probation outcomes.    

While immensely worthwhile, these reforms will not be enough to achieve the savings and public safety improvements California needs.  The Senate version of prison reform, ABx3 14 (Arambula), included these reforms and more.  The Senate-approved bill gave the prison secretary the authority to order home detention with electronic monitoring for certain risk-assessed inmates — the same authority sheriffs have now to manage their jail populations.  Significantly, the Senate version included a sentencing commission, which has been recommended by many experts over the years.

California courts have referred to our sentencing laws as ”labyrinthine procedures,” “mind-numbingly complicated,” and “a legislative monstrosity, which is bewildering in its complexity.”  Over 30 years ago, California changed from indeterminate sentencing to determinate sentencing.   Since then, over 1,000 crime bills have been enacted into law.  Crime du jour sentencing laws have supplied grist for the political mill and eroded coherence to our sentencing system.    

Regrettably, these much-needed reforms were not achieved in 2009, but they must be attained in 2010.   California’s prison overcrowding crisis has created conditions that are unsafe, and overloaded prisons have become a crushing financial burden on the taxpayers.  According to the Legislative Analyst’s office, state spending on corrections has increased by roughly $8.4 billion, or 450 percent, between 1988-89 and 2008-09, an average annual increase of about 9 percent.  Corrections takes up about twice as much of the state budget than it did 20 years ago, increasing from about 5 percent to 11 percent of general fund spending – the highest in the nation.  The prison population has increased by 125 percent over the past 20 years.  California is now spending more on corrections than on higher education.

The federal court has taken over a state prison health care system which has cost California taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.  As the number of inmates imprisoned under “tough on crime” laws continues to grow and those inmates age, the cost of incarcerating this elderly prison population will continue to drive health care costs at an unsustainable rate.  

These unfinished reforms are not the only changes California’s criminal justice system needs to produce better public safety outcomes.  At a cost of nearly $250,000 annually per ward, California’s state-run juvenile institutions need to be revamped.  The recommendations of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice should be enacted to ensure that those in prison are there because they are guilty, and not because of bad science or unreliable evidence.  The Legislature should evaluate whether the special circumstances allowing for the imposition of capital punishment in this state are too broad and too inconsistently applied, and how the costs of the imposition of the death penalty as opposed to life without parole impacts the budgets of the prison system, the courts and the counties.  Court and confinement costs in death penalty cases are estimated to be approximately $137.7 million a year, and that number increases as death row grows yearly.  Alternatively, life without parole cases would cost the state approximately $11.5 million a year.  These are the kinds of policies that warrant legislative scrutiny in the coming months.  

In 2009, thanks in large part to the “perfect storm” of prison overcrowding and the state’s fiscal crisis, the Legislature enacted a first set of corrections reforms.  These reforms, however, will not be enough to achieve the whopping $1.2 billion in cuts to the corrections’ budget this year, or the public safety outcomes Californians deserve.  Indeed, we have only just begun the process for meaningful reform.

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