After a Supreme Court order to release an additional 9,600 prisoners from the California state prison system by year’s end, Governor Jerry Brown has been reluctant to follow through, citing substantial progress that has already been made in prison health care. He claims the Supreme Court picked a number arbitrarily with “no evidence that I think is credible that says we are over capacity.”
Nonetheless, Brown agreed to design an action plan to, in the name of public safety, avoid early releases at all costs (to the taxpayer).
As recommended, the state has already expanded low-security firefighting camps that give eligible inmates a quicker path to freedom and a valuable mental outlet. In addition, the state is sending 1,280 to a new medical facility in Stockton and delaying the return of 3,600 inmates housed in private prisons.
The most recent development is a partnership between the CDCR, the California prison guard union, and the Corrections Corporation of America to build a 2,300-bed private facility in Kern county staffed by state-trained prison guards. The proposal, which is partnered with further leases in county jails and out-of-state private prisons, is estimated to cost an initial $315 million in reserve funds, with a possibility it will rise to 700 million over the next few years..
While union and corporate spokespeople characterized the deal as a “win-win” and government spokespeople repeated a line about “pursuing all options to comply with the court order while maintaining public safety,” legislators are dismayed by this renewed commitment to the wasteful convenience of incarceration first.
Assembly Speaker John A. Peréz described the plan as “throwing money at a problem.” Assembly budget chairwoman Nancy Skinner said she hoped any expansion would be temporary, and State Senator Darrell Steinberg has been outspoken in criticism.
“There are two paths,” he told a group of peers on Monday.
“One is to expend money to expand jail capacity with no impact on long term population. The second path is to take those resources and instead invest them in mental health courts, drug treatment, mental health treatment, vocational rehabilitation, evidence based programs, and seek to reduce the population in a more sustained way…that shifts the criminal justice debate to a smart on crime discussion.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder launched that debate last week at a Bar Association event in San Francisco, unveiling a multi-faceted “Smart on Crime” plan for counties to avoid necessitating jail expansion. The announcement condemned mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenders that was keeping prison numbers high.
Non-binding guidelines are included for re-evaluation of federal cases to conserve resources, alternatives to incarceration, fewer unnecessary barriers to reentry, and a civil “surge” to protect the vulnerable.
Abolishing mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders is the boldest statement yet on prison reform from the administration. Although some cautioned Holder was “leading from behind,” the vast majority of reform advocates were pleasantly surprised by the new DOJ standards.
In addition to failed 2012 legislation to downgrade non-violent possession to a misdemeanor, Glenn Backes, a lobbyist for the Drug Policy Alliance claims the group has submitted proposals for months about reducing drug sentencing and conditionally releasing non-violent drug offenders.
According to Backes, 12,000 of the current state prison inmates are non-violent drug offenses that are easily rehabbed and prevented. However, the state says most or all, low-medium risk inmates have already been transferred to county jails or private prisons, leaving only the high-risk under state custody.
The governor has repeatedly affirmed that California will never release potentially dangerous prisoners en masse. This is commendable, as Californian citizens certainly don’t want any risky felons released to their own devices. However, if a county fulfills its correctional function and cuts recidivism using “evidence-based” tactics, risky felons will slowly integrate into society with the county’s help without being a threat to public safety.
Some might say that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that achieving long-sought numbers in time for the federal deadline should be the first priority, regardless of methods. On the other hand, realigning population by distributing and expanding lockup may only fix the situation long enough for it to get even worse.