How to Deal With Overcrowded California Prisons
I was motivated to write this blog by an accounting ethics student of mine, Andrew Kolchak, who wrote his own blog on overcrowded California prisons as part of an assignment. Andrew pointed out that "Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute states that, under the United States Constitution, '…protection requires that prisoners be afforded a minimum standard of living… [and] some other Constitutional rights, including due process in their right to administrative appeals and a right of access to the parole process.' The most controversial part of the prisoners’ rights argument to date is whether California prisons meet the requirements for a minimum standard of living."
Perhaps you have heard that the California prison system is crumbling. I don't know why it should be any different than the rest of the state. California has now become a failed experiment in being a trailblazer in so many areas including providing for public education, health care, and now housing prisoners in a humane way. As might be expected there is a link between overcrowding in prisons, the number of prisoners and declining educational achievement by high school graduates. A review of recent research shows that California grapples with a multifaceted set of issues in its K-12 and higher education system including:
• A persistent achievement gap, with low-income students performing far worse than their more affluent peers
• An estimated 31% of 9th graders dropping out of high school between 9th and 12th grade
• Lack of preparation, in college preparatory or career technical coursework, for education after high school
• A college-going rate in decline over the last decade, which now puts California 40th in the nation on this important measure, and
• Substantially lower college participation rates in inland and rural California and for black and Latino students statewide.
It is estimated that the state houses 140,000 inmates. The rest are in the Legislature (Sorry, I couldn't resist!). Jam-packed into 33 prisons only built to hold 80,000 individuals, these men and women commit suicide at double the national inmate average, experience unprecedented rates of lock-downs, receive inadequate medical treatment and sometimes live in continuous fear of violence. The U.S. Supreme Court looked at the overcrowding in response to a lawsuit brought that it violates the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered California to cut 30,000 inmates over the next two years. The Supremes' ruled in a 5-4 vote that "Overcrowding has overtaken the limited resources of prison staff; imposed demands well beyond the capacity of medical and mental health facilities; and created unsanitary and unsafe conditions that make progress in the provision of care difficult or impossible to achieve," wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the majority.
Given the close vote and the extreme decision to drastically reduce the prison population—a task that the state will likely accomplish through sentencing reforms rather than a mass exodus of inmates—critics wonder how bad the situation inside the California prisons could actually be. According to those close the system, it’s been dysfunctional for more than two decades, with the specific problems changing but the quality of life for most inmates remaining unconstitutionally bad. The current inmate population compared to normal capacity is 179 percent. According to last year's Supreme Court’s decision that became effective on May 24, 2011, the inmate population statewide in California’s 33 adult prisons must be no more than: 167 percent of design capacity by November 28, 2011 and 137.5 by May 24, 2013.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) recently submitted a report to the federal Three-Judge Court updating it on prison crowding reduction measures that the state has taken, or plans to take, in response to the Supremes' decision. “Our current reduction plan does not include the early release of inmates. But it is absolutely critical that the Legislature understand the seriousness of the Supreme Court’s decision and support a variety of measures that will allow us to lower our inmate population in the safest possible way. AB 109 is the cornerstone of the solution, and the Legislature must act to protect public safety by funding Realignment.”
On April 4, 2011, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed Assembly Bill 109, historic legislation that will enable California to close the revolving door of low-level inmates cycling in and out of prison. Under Realignment, the state will continue to incarcerate offenders who commit serious, violent, or sexual crimes and counties will supervise, rehabilitate and manage low-level offenders using a variety of tools. It is anticipated that realignment will reduce the prison population by tens of thousands of low-level offenders over the next three years.
Legislative reforms already implemented established the California Community Corrections Performance Incentives Act, created credit-earning enhancements for inmates who complete certain rehabilitation programs, and reformed parole supervision by creating a Non-Revocable Parole category for low-level, lower-risk offenders. CDCR also transferred about 10,000 inmates to out-of-state facilities. In other words, these prisoners were outsourced. This program would continue as operationally needed. Since 2009, the department has also discharged more than 27,000 parolees who were deported to foreign countries by the federal government.
California prisoner numbers are projected to decline by adding “no-prison” felonies that would result in prison terms of less than 366 days, alternatives to custody, a more generous credits system and far fewer parolees re-entering. Shorter sentences would allow people convicted of seven felony counts to be transferred to less reliable and more prisoner-friendly county jails, rather than state prisons.
The crimes of the chosen few to be relocated include: (1) possession of a controlled substance, including cocaine and methamphetamine; (2) check fraud; (3) miscellaneous grand theft; (4) receiving stolen property; and (5) petty theft with a prior conviction of a certain offense.
I don't know, why don't we just outsource ALL prisoners? I suggest Texas as the destination of choice. In fact, two of Texas' prisons were recently rated by ex-cons as the best place to serve time including one in Bastrop that has easy airport access (huh?) and in Texarkana that boasts a track, booce pit, and basketball court.
Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, June 20, 2011