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California Prison Rehabilitation Programs Costly and Ineffective

by Kevin Bliss

A report by the California State Auditor, released on January 31, 2019, found that rehabilitative programs currently offered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) did not assist in reducing the state’s 50 percent recidivism rate.

The report, requested by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, evaluated the cost effectiveness of the CDCR’s budget increase of hundreds of millions of dollars since 2011, when criminal justice reforms were enacted to reduce the state’s prison population. The report highlighted problems in enrollment, staffing, curriculum and oversight, and recommended certain corrective actions.

The CDCR set goals in 2012 to increase rehabilitative programs in order to reduce recidivism, to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring the state to lower its prison population to a more manageable 137.5 percent of capacity. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1]. To accomplish this, the California legislature increased the CDCR’s budget by $64 million over a five-year period.

Intake centers used assessment tools to evaluate each incoming prisoner. Tests of Adult Basic Education (TABE) measure academic achievement, while Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS) addresses vocational education and behavioral therapy needs. Priority is given to prisoners who are within five years of their release date and have a moderate to high risk of reoffending.

The State Auditor report found the CDCR had done nothing since 2012 to verify the performance of its rehabilitation programs. It said prisoners had not been consistently placed in programs based on their personal assessments; classroom facilities were listed as inadequate, and student enrollment was well below requirements.

Program staffing was insufficient and many of the contracted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) vendors were not teaching an evidence-based curriculum. The report also stated the CDCR had not validated its assessment tools for accuracy after 2011 “realignment” legislation altered the prison system’s demographics, increasing the proportion of prisoners with more serious and violent crimes.

Further, 62 percent of prisoners released between July 2017 and June 2018 did not receive sufficient rehabilitative programming.

State Auditor Elaine Howle said in a letter accompanying the report that the issues cited were problematic and costly. “These results are serious enough to highlight an urgent need for Corrections to take a more active and meaningful role in assuring that these programs are effective,” she wrote. “Because the Legislature provided Corrections with a significant budget increase so that it could expand rehabilitation programs to all prisons in the State, it is vital that Corrections demonstrate that the additional investment was worthwhile.”

The report made several recommendations, which included reevaluating the CDCR’s assessment tools, mandatory placement of prisoners on appropriate waiting lists, filling classes with prisoners deemed moderate to high risk, implementing plans to meet staffing needs, enforcing CBT contract requirements for evidence-based programming, and performing periodic evaluations of the programs and recidivism data. The State Auditor also suggested that the CDCR receive independent oversight to monitor its progress. The recommendations should be implemented no later than January 2020.

“The Department is committed to building a strong model to measure our rehabilitative programs consistently and to continue enhancing public safety by ensuring our inmates have the skills and resources they need for a successful transition back to their communities,” the CDCR said in a statement.

“This is a long process, and we’re at the beginning of it,” added Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer. “If we start making corrections now, five years from now, 10 years from now, we’re going to look back at that audit and be really proud of how we’ve moved forward and improved the system.”

Previously, in a 2005 report, the California State Auditor found the CDCR’s Prison Industry Authority had failed to demonstrate that the agency’s industry programs had any rehabilitative benefits for prisoners. [See: PLN, June 2006, p.22]. 



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