Public Safety and Prison Reform
Perhaps the most fundamental tension in a free society is presented by the simple question; how safe is safe enough?
The answers unfortunately are far more complex than the question.
Most public discussion of public safety occurs in the aftermath of tragedy. As a result, no issue is subject to more emotion. The consequences of failure are profound. But, not all failures are easy to quantify.
SENTENCING HISTORY AND BUDGET PRESSURE
In California, changes in the criminal justice system in the ’80s and ’90s came largely through the ballot box or through the legislature responding to the threat of initiative action.
The so-called “Three Strikes” law and determinant sentencing have removed much of the discretion previously afforded the judiciary. The result has been longer prison terms, a relatively steady drop in crime, and higher prison costs.
As financial constraints hit the state budget in general, pressure has mounted to reduce spending on prisons.
Advocates for other state spending priorities, philosophical opponents of current sentencing law, and private prison companies and their advocates have all decried the growth in spending on prisons. Each with their own interest in “spinning” the facts in ways that could benefit their cause.
One of the results of these spinning exercises is a public perception that the proportion of the State budget dedicated to prisons is much higher than is actually the case.
An oft-repeated plea is that we should cut spending on prisons so as to free up resources for education. Yet, total prison expenditures constitute about 11% of the State budget whereas education spending is more than 50% of the State budget.
CAUSES OF HIGH PER-PRISON COSTS
However, the per-prisoner cost of California prisons is in the range of $50,000 per year, significantly higher than in other states. The reasons for this high cost are as follows:
1. Extraordinarily high medical costs driven by an aging inmate population, the remote locations of most facilities, and the relatively high cost of health care in California.
2. The lack of a Prison facility in the State’s largest metropolitan area of Los Angeles.
3. The large number of facilities in remote rural communities.
4. The inability to hire sufficient correctional staff and consequent reliance on overtime.
5. A decentralized management structure in which decision-making is focused at the warden level.
6. A long-term confrontational relationship between labor and management resulting in constant litigation.
FEDERAL COURT PRESSURE
The Federal Court has ruled that California prisons fail to meet federal requirements regarding access to health care and overcrowding. This has led to court orders mandating that the State adopt plans to release prisoners and to improve medical care. The Court has appointed a Receiver to oversee the operation of the California Department of Corrections.
Given current financial circumstances, the Court has had a very difficult time identifying a practical manner in which to correct the deficiencies identified in its order.
The move to release prisoners early has been particularly controversial. Early release puts tremendous pressure on an already under-funded parole system and raises the same issues that led to the “tough on crime” movement in the ’80s that led to longer sentences in the first place.
THE HIGH COST OF RURAL PRISON LOCATIONS
At its core, a criminal justice system that relies on longer sentences requires a commensurate level of spending on prisons. However, what is generally not recognized is the domino-like cost effect of the State’s decision not to build a prison facility in metropolitan Los Angeles.
With almost half of the State’s population in LA it is not surprising that a similar proportion of the State’s crimes are committed there. The lack of a prison facility in LA has a number of serious and cascading cost consequences. First, it is difficult and expensive to recruit correctional employees in remote areas. Second, health care is more expensive to provide in remote areas. Third, the logistics of managing prisoner transportation and release are significantly higher in remote areas.
These cost impacts extend beyond the incarceration period and into the difficulties of managing parole. Many of the rights of prisoners are associated with preserving their ability to maintain contact with their families throughout the process. The lack of an LA facility simply makes it more expensive to meet these requirements.
Much criticism has been directed at the State’s labor contract with its Correctional Officers. However, total employee compensation is driven more by the over reliance on overtime and by the difficulty in recruiting for remote locations than any other factors.
Compensation and work rules are both factors in overall prison expenses but they are small when compared to the other factors driving costs.
HEALTH CARE COSTS
The most perverse of these is the high cost of providing medical care to prisoners. It is the single fastest growing cost factor. No small part of the cost pressure is the result of federal court orders compelling the State to provide to prisoners a broad level of access to health care (a level of access that some argue is higher than even insured workers generally enjoy). The cost of providing health care, however, is most significantly exacerbated by the geographical location of most California prisons. Most health care is delivered outside the prisons, necessitating expensive transport of prisoner/patients who must be accompanied by appropriate armed escort.
EARLY RELEASE – AT WHAT COST?
The State’s most aggressive effort at cost containment has been the “early release” of prisoners. A great deal of academic and legal attention has been given to the question of what criteria should be utilized in determining which prisoners can be released early without compromising public safety and Federal court pressure has accelerated this debate.
Recent events, particularly those involving repeat sex offenders, have placed new attention on early release and its consequences. The simple fact is that regardless how well studied the criteria for release, mistakes are inevitable. It is a return to the fundamental question; how safe is safe enough?
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