LAO Says New Prison Realignment Plans Won’t Work as Lawmakers Want

Just a few months from the federally mandated deadline to reduce California’s prison population by 137.5 percent capacity, Governor Jerry Brown released a plan to partner with private prisons and a correctional staff union. It would invest more than $700 million over the next two years for the construction of new contracted lock-up facilities bringing incarceration numbers down to required levels.

State lawmakers and corrections watchdogs emphasized that it sacrifices long-term tactics for short-term tactics. State Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg — an advocate of rehabilitative corrections strategy — argues that without evidence-based programs that actually correct, the state of California may not see desired results from the Governor’s plan.

On September 4, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) of the state of California released an official report on the content and criticisms surrounding Brown’s original plan, as well as Steinberg’s competing rehabilitative plan.

Both plans were summarized with potential risks and concerns for deciding lawmakers:

 

  • Contract beds to increase by 12,500 in out-of-state facilities, two reactivated  facilities and one new in-state private facility
  • First year cost at $315 million, second year data missing — estimated at $400+ million
  • Waives all California laws and regulations restricting new private prison contracts
  • Suspends December 2016 closure of California Rehabilitation Center
  • Provisions officially expire in January 2017, but administration says expiration is really June 2015
  • Negotiates conditional settlement to extend deadline three years, five-member panel to determine a relevant population cap
  • Establishes $200 million yearly grant program incentivizing counties into developing rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration, with performance rewards
  • Founds 18-member advisory commission on public safety to prepare long-term recommendations for 2015
  • Acknowledges failure to meet December deadline; dependent on negotiation to avoid fine

Facility construction is the shortest route to compliance with the federal mandate. However, the LAO remains skeptical about the governor’s long-term goal, seeing that 2015-2016 remains without a definitive plan. If the contracts expire in June 2015, the scheduled January 2015 submission of a long-term plan only allows a few months for legislators to debate and facilitate implementation.

The LAO noted an alarming lack of cost-savings analyses or accountability measures expected with spending millions in state reserves. Not only will the price of contracting beds likely rise due to being short-term, founding the private facility staffed by state employees in California City may cost double.

The LAO also doubted the state’s capacity to maintain project control; without careful contract oversight, the state could end up paying for empty beds. In the event of construction delays during the two and a half months until the deadline, dreaded early releases may be necessary anyway. Waiving all restrictions also raises questions about the Legislature’s power to oversee expenditure and implementation.

The LAO estimated that for December 2016 compliance, Steinberg’s plan would have to oversee yearly reductions of 7,000 detainees. However, because the new population cap and deadline settlement are undefined, accurate estimates for impacts and savings are impossible to formulate. The effects on public safety could be either disastrous or miraculous, depending on implementation quality.

Both plans still have questions to address. If grants alone don’t work, are there contingency plans? How much money per reduced admission will be rewarded? What’s the performance baseline for evaluating counties, and how would the existent grant program work with the proposed one?

On Monday, Sacramento announced that a compromise had been reached between the governor and the Senate, using both construction and rehab as bargaining chips. While the construction of the costly new facilities has been green-lit to insure against noncompliance fines, the federal panel is still given an option to avoid the expense by granting a deadline extension for rehabilitation results.

Given that full construction by December is unlikely, the state is dependent on federal cooperation to avoid federal fines.

Ultimately, the LAO primarily recommends exploring three critical objectives: reduce prison admissions, reduce time in prison, and reduce parolee recidivism. Contract and capacity expansion are the last options, reserved for emergency and not evidence-based priorities.