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California’s Solution To Prison Overcrowding: $7.4 Billion To Build 53,000 New Beds

California's Solution To Prison Overcrowding: $7.4 Billion To Build 53,000 New Beds

by Marvin Mentor

Faced with three federal judges threatening to place a population cap on California's overcrowded prison system, the state Legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger "cured" the problem in May 2007 by authorizing $7.4 billion in non-voter approved bonds to add 53,000 beds to California's lockups. The "solution" resembles more the mythological two-headed monster Hydra, wherein it proposes to abate overcrowding by expanding prisons and jails 31%, while tying this expansion to the success of a first phase aimed at reducing population through "rehabilitation." The real test of this plan will come when the federal judges decide if this salves their immediate concerns as to inadequate health care, inadequate mental health care and inadequate facilities to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act in California's prisons.

The new plan adds 53,000 new beds -- 40,000 in state prisons and 13,000 in county jails. In Phase I, 12,000 beds will be built on the grounds of existing prisons. Six thousand more will be in new prison hospitals under the direction of federal healthcare Receiver Robert Sillen. Finally, 6,000 beds will also be created in new "re-entry facilities" in urban areas around the state, where prisoners will receive intensive reintegration training. On top of all this, California will ship 8,000 prisoners to private lockups out of the state.

All new Phase I beds must be accompanied by rehabilitation services, consisting of academic and vocational education, substance abuse treatment and mental health care. To address the latter population, California will also add 4,000 more drug treatment beds for addicted parolees. Outpatient mental health care treatment will be provided as well. Progress in all of the above programs will be overseen by a new office within the state Inspector General's office.

Two issues not resolved by the recent legislation were sentencing reform and parole reform. In the past several decades, California has suffered from political candidates scrambling to outdo each other by enacting "tough on crime" penal statutes. The result has been greatly increased sentences for many crimes, with the attendant prison overcrowding. At the other end of the spectrum, discretionary "technical" parole violations (e.g., being late to an appointment) have been routinely made by parole agents as a means to fill all empty beds ("bed-vacancy-driven recidivism"). The parolees are only kept in prison for a few months, long enough to interrupt their already precarious housing and job arrangements pending their next release. Also called a "catch and release" program that artificially inflates California's "recidivism" rate to 70 %, this process fills approximately 40,000 of California's 172,000 prison beds at any one time. Because neither sentencing nor parole reform was yet been addressed, many observers regard the proposed "cure" as an expensive placebo solely intended to dupe the federal judges into thinking California has resolved its unconstitutional overcrowding problem.

The alternative to building more beds is to release existing prisoners early. If California released all prisoners due to parole in the next 30 days one month early, it would open up 15,000 beds. But drawing a line in the political sand, Governor Schwarzenegger announced that he would not release so much as one non-violent offender early by even one day. Thus, both the Legislature and Governor are mortally afraid of their political careers crumbling upon the slightest public perception of being "weak on crime." Indeed, the prison guards union, using its victims' rights group shills, has publicly ridiculed state officials by driving mobile billboards around Sacramento with messages mocking any attempts to cut prison population.

A little advertised attribute of the new plan is that it will build the new beds only by the year 2014. And that depends upon Phase I efforts demonstrating a reduction in population due to rehabilitation efforts.

The Achilles heel in the whole plan is that the total amount authorized for new rehabilitation programs is a paltry $50 million. The planned rehabilitation programs are more of the same that have recently proved ineffectual. Nonetheless, Corrections Secretary James Tilton stated that building and bringing the 16,000 new rehabilitation beds in Phase I on line will cost $165,000 each per year--that's $2.6 billion, or 20 % of the current total annual prison budget.

All of the above will plainly take years to construct. A dubious Senate President Pro-Tem Don Peralta conceded, "I must say this tests any article of faith that I've ever been associated with. I do not, as I stand here, believe that this job can get done." Dan MacAllair, head of San Francisco's Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, compared the new effort to the proven failure of California's trying to build its way out of an increasingly violent juvenile justice system. State Senator Gloria Romero branded the effort "a fig leaf" for the governor to stave off federal takeover. But the federal judges want immediate solutions to the problems that they have been fighting California over for decades.

Federal Judges Thelton E. Henderson and Lawrence K. Karlton met on June 27, 2007 to review the bidding. Some form of federal intervention will likely soon succeed California's bureaucratic game of "chicken" before the already bad situation only gets worse.

Sources: Sacramento Bee, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle.

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