Wednesday, December 01, 2010

California contemplates big reductions in inmate numbers before SCOTUS

This morning I've been reading the oral arguments (pdf)  from Schwarzenegger v. Plata, the California prison overcrowding case heard yesterday by the US Supreme Court, and wanted to record a few passing thoughts.

First, the Los Angeles Times' coverage says the court appears prepared to affirm the lower courts order to reduce California's prison numbers, and counting noses based on their comments, that's my takeaway as well. Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Kennedy all sounded as though they were inclined to uphold the order, or at least substantial portions of it.

California's recidivism rate is off the charts - 70% systemwide compared to about 28% in Texas. (I've discussed those disparities before, e.g., here and here). However, argued the plaintiff, "The 70 percent figure ... doesn't always include crimes. It includes lots of technical parole violators. People who have missed their appointments, for example. So it's not as grave as some of the figures that are informed by the other side." Ranked by risk category, the lowest risk offenders collectively had a 17% chance of recidivism, he said.

Also interesting to me: Even in resisting the court order, the state of California is not arguing for the status quo: They're claiming they need five years to reduce the prison population by 36,000 to 45,000, while the federal courts have given them two. That factbite was captured in this exchange, which made me chuckle:
JUSTICE KAGAN: Does the State stand by its representation that it can do this without any public safety impact in 5 years?

MR. PHILLIPS: Yes. I mean, we made that submission to the court and we -- we believe that we could comply with it. That said -

JUSTICE KAGAN: That means it's true.
Indeed, said the plaintiff's attorney, recently "the governor proposed to the legislature that he reduce the prison population. He said it could be done safely by the same amount, roughly 37,000 prisoners in 2 years. So what the court found was basically what the governor had believed was safe." The Democratic-controlled legislature quashed Schwarzenegger's Reaganesque reform plans, but I find it fascinating that there's more or less a consensus among the parties involved that California's prisons should hold about 40K fewer total inmates than they do right now; the debate is over how to get there and how long it should take. Justice Sotomayor said perhaps the state should be given more time for construction projects, but that two years wasn't unreasonable for implementation of various, identified policy changes that could be enacted immediately.

Speaking of which, since I'm always looking at what other states are doing to reduce overincarceration pressures, I was interested to read the discussion of CA's new law increasing good-time credits for parole and reducing technical violations for probation and parole. (We have earned time in Texas but the parole board is regrettably free to disregard it, which they routinely do.)  Justice Breyer listed other alternatives being suggested: "the technical parole violators go elsewhere. The elderly and infirm prisoners, some of them be released. The good time credits for older people were ... increased, and also, halfway houses and other kinds of prison facilities which used to be called less -- less physically restrictive punishments, or ... building new prisons. ... that seems to be the gamut."

If all sides agree California could reduce its prison population by 37,000 in 2-5 years without harming public safety, I see no reason why Texas, with a prison system about the same size and much lower recidivism rates, couldn't do the same thing. Doing so would let the state close, conservatively, 12 to 20 of its 112 prison units over the same period, saving hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Can you imagine?

I've gotta say, as a Texan reading this transcript, the same thought kept recurring: Thank God for the late Judge William Wayne Justice or Texas would be in the same mess or worse. TDCJ has its problems, but Judge Justice insisted the state address its most gaping flaws three decades ago, at a time when the state incarcerated around 30K inmates instead of 155K. Our system has plenty of shortcomings, but it's not as big a mess as California's.

MORE: See additional discussion at California Correctional Crisis, Sentencing Law & Policy, Crime and Consequences, the Prison Law Blog, Simple Justice, and a good backgrounder from KALW News describing how the state got to this point.


Prison Doc said...

I can't really bring myself to thank God for Judge Justice, whose actions were as heavy handed in the opposite direction as were the negatives he sought to correct--but now as the pendulum swings more toward the middle again, I agree that the reforms of the 70's did do a lot of good.

But the long sentences for minor crimes and the difficulty of anyone obtaining early parole frustrates me on a daily basis.

Sorry, no suggestions here--just venting.

Anonymous said...

I look at California and I don't see all problems and the changes. I look at California and think - I wish there were more criminals released to my community.

Anonymous said...

I look at California and I don't see all the problems and the changes. I look at California and think - I wish there were more criminals released to my community.

(Left the pesky "the" out)

Alan said...

A still relevant excerpt from:

Cruel and Unusual Still

by William Wayne Justice
Published on: Thursday, April 01, 1999

“The measure of a prison system’s constitutionality, as always, is not its production of policies, but its treatment of inmates.

Texas prison inmates continue to live in fear – a fear that is incomprehensible to most of the state’s free world citizens. More vulnerable inmates are raped, beaten, owned, and sold by more powerful ones. Despite their pleas to prison officials, they are often refused protection. Instead, they pay for protection, in money, services, or sex. Correctional officers continue to rely on the physical control of excessive force to enforce order. Those inmates locked away in administrative segregation, especially those with mental illnesses, are subjected to extreme deprivations and daily psychological harm. Such practices and conditions cannot stand in our society, under our Constitution.”

You need to keep in mind most inmates will one day be released so the question is what will they have learned in the process?

Judge Justice wanted them to return with less psychological harm done.

Anonymous said...

Scott, you don't really believe that recidivism in Texas is down to 28%, do you? I mean, half the national average? Come on, those numbers have been tweaked somehow. It is not even reasonable.

zeety said...

I don't live in Texas anymore. So I say keep putting assholes in jail. Sooner or later they will get around to the dickheads who post here supporting the corporate prison government/state. It's only a matter of time.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, Michael, I do believe it - the number is somewhat dated but is all that's available. IMO the reason is that Texas overincarcerates low-risk offenders who aren't likely to re-offend, anyway.

BTW, 5:00, it's not just CA. Florida spends $2.5 billion per year on prisons and their GOP governor elect wants to cut a billion from their budget. Mass incarceration is a rich nation's hobby - now that the bills are coming due we can't afford it.