Monday, July 27, 2009

California must reduce inmate numbers to achieve budget savings

Proposals to cut prison costs in the face of a massive budget crisis generated blowback for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week after he suggested releasing some inmates from the state's bloated lockups to save money and comply with federal court mandates.

So what was the solution? Cut the corrections budget total by $1.2 billion overall and put off decisions where to cut until lawmakers leave town.

Nobody without a crystal ball can know exactly how those $1.2 billion in cuts will be realized, but a glimpse at current official thinking may be had by reading a column on California's Flash Report by the Secretary of California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Matthew Cate. He believes his agency can "achieve our budget cut targets without the early release that the public has feared," suggesting a slew of proposals aimed at reducing inmate populations in the near term. According to Cate, these are the main suggestions for reducing prison costs being kicked around out west:
  • Prioritizing resources to ensure that we can house serious, violent, and sex offenders and better supervise them on parole: We’re seeking to reduce our prison population by 5,300 over the next year by cutting down on the 70,000+ parole violators who cycle in and out of prison for technical and other violations. This will also allow us to focus resources on higher risk offenders and reduce parole agents’ caseloads for better supervision.
  • Providing alternatives to prison for lower-level offenders who do not pose a serious risk: We intend to use technology to provide alternative custody options for low-risk offenders with less than 12 months to serve, as well as the elderly and infirmed, to reduce the prison population by 6,300. Rather than clogging up $48,000 per year prison beds, or $100,000+ prison treatment slots, these offenders would be placed on house arrest, or in a medical or treatment facility, and monitored by GPS. As an added benefit, the Feds through Medicare can help share the cost of their treatment if they’re outside the bricks and mortar walls of a prison.
  • Adjusting property crime thresholds: We expect to have 5,600 fewer lower level property criminals in state prison for things like writing bad checks, petty theft with a prior, grand theft, and vehicle theft, by raising felony thresholds. These criminals won’t escape punishment, they just won’t be serving their sentence in extremely expensive state prison beds for property crimes where the dollar value stolen is less than $2,500.
  • Shifting the burden of criminal alien felons onto federal authorities where it belongs: There are 19,000 criminal alien felons in California prisons, and we receive about 11 cents on the dollar for their custody and care. The Governor is going to review their files, starting with low-level non-serious, violent, or sex offenders, to determine which sentences can be commuted and turned over to the federal government for incarceration or deportation.
  • Encouraging positive behavior through credit enhancements: Inmates who participate in and complete proven rehabilitation programs such as GED, college degrees, and vocational training, will be able to earn weeks or months off of their sentence, rewarding good behavior that will reduce recidivism. This is estimated to reduce the prison population by 1,600.
  • Achieving operational savings to reduce costs and increase efficiencies: CDCR is streamlining, consolidating, and eliminating positions at headquarters, the division of juvenile justice, and in the field, to increase efficiency and reduce costs. This will be done in conjunction with the population reduction reforms in a way that will not only save money, but will also allow us to continue to carry out our core functions.
The political dynamic in California strikes me as very similar to that we've seen in Texas legislative debates over rising prison costs: Politicians see releasing current inmates as a political nonstarter, but find it more palatable to suggest reducing the number of new entrants to prison going forward.

Texas pursued some of these same strategies in recent years to reduce its prison growth rate, a result achieved primarily by reducing the number of probation revocations. That was done through greater use of "progressive sanctions" and intermediate penalties for those who violate terms of supervision instead of sending them straight to prison. Secretary Cate's proposal would apply that tactic to both probation parole. Key to making it work, though, to judge by Texas' experience, will be boosting supervision resources, either by spending more money to supervise offenders in the community or reducing the length of supervision so officers are watching fewer people. That tactic will surely save money compared to sending the same folks to prison, but as a practical matter it will require additional investments to strengthen community supervision.

Adjusting the property crime thresholds is a strategy Texas has not yet pursued but which is probably justified here as much as in the Golden State. In Texas, theft reaches felony thresholds when "the value of the property stolen is $1,500 or more but less than $20,000," so the same tactic could be applied here and would also reduce the number of new prison entrants. The $1,500 level was set in 1993 when the "state jail felony" category was created (essentially a fourth degree felony), and it's never been adjusted for inflation.

Supposed savings from reducing incarceration of illegal immigrants will likely prove ephemeral - they aren't that great a proportion of people who commit crimes and it makes little sense just to deport criminals who can fairly easily make their way back into the country. What I find most interesting though is the statement that the Governor will look to "commute" some sentences in order to facilitate quicker deportation. Modern governors are especially stingy with such commutation power and it'd be remarkable if the Governator decides to use his on such a large scale.

The suggestion that California will "Encourage positive behavior through credit enhancements," of course, is a proposal to release well-behaved inmates sooner, which belies the claim the state will avoid "early release" of current prisoners. It's ironic to me to see Cate using the bureaucratic euphemism "enhancement," which usually means increasing criminal penalties, to support shortening prison sentences. While it may seem a bit disingenuous, it's interesting to note the language Cate uses to frame the discussion.

The last bullet is simply an homage to ideological critiques of "government waste," but I seriously doubt much actual savings can be realized merely by increasing government "efficiency." Politicians have been hammering that theme for three decades and, for the most part, any alleged waste or inefficiency has been long ago eliminated. The main corrections costs don't stem from bureaucracy but from prisons' primary function. The only way to reduce incarceration costs, in the end, will be to reduce the number of people the state incarcerates. Everything else is window dressing.

Via California Corrections Crisis.


sunray's wench said...

"Encouraging positive behavior through credit enhancements: Inmates who participate in and complete proven rehabilitation programs such as GED, college degrees, and vocational training, will be able to earn weeks or months off of their sentence, rewarding good behavior that will reduce recidivism. This is estimated to reduce the prison population by 1,600."

I'm not sure how they can estimate how many inmates this would release, but we already know that Texas thinks it is better to dangle that particular carrot at the end of the parole term and not during the incarceration (if at all). Allowing inmates to earn their way towards an earlier parole works in other states, but I've yet to see Texas give a reason why they wont use it.

Come to think of it, I haven't seen any sensible reasons why Texas wont do a lot of things, beyond the usual "we do it our way here" answer.

Charlie O said...

Sunray's Wench,

That is because the Texas prison system is not about rehabilitation or correction. (They make a point of NOT calling it a correctional system). It is all about punishment and revenge. Mostly revenge.

Chiflin said...

Here's a Win-Win idea for California prisoners: Early release for anyone who donates a kidney!

Unknown said...

"...elderly and infirmed..." Oh yes, let's dump them on the streets. Because we all know they won't get any better care on the outside. Just a shift of which agency is paying for what. Let's increase our homeless population. Maybe a bit of thought here might spare some of our elderly the indignities we want them to suffer.

Anonymous said...

My boyfriend is in a Level 1 (mimimum security) California prison. We have undeniable proof that he is innocent but he will sit there for another 18 months, at least, before we even have a chance to present this to the appeals board. He was paying taxes and contributing to society before he was put in. Silly us, we believed innocent people didn't go to jail. Now they are paying $48,000 a year to house him and he isn't paying taxes into the state anymore. This is why California is broke.

Anonymous said...

KatDerrick, You are clueless. The prisoners who will be eligible under this release will most likely be going back to their mainly boring lives. And if you have a job, you are probably working with someone who has been there. I worked at a bank that "performed strict background checks" and when it was sold we lost half of our staff due to their "new" background check. Getting these people back to their normal lives would be better for everyone. They may be able to salvage their jobs and family ties before too much damage. Also, the retrition rate for the proposed released, is as low as it gets. I'm embarrassed for you, KatDerrick.