Prisons break

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Today, Reynolds and Krisberg discuss prison overcrowding. Later this week they'll debate mandatory sentencing laws, early release and other issues.

Time on for bad behaviorBy Mike Reynolds
Yes, the prison population should and can be reduced, but more space must also be a major factor in solving California's overcrowding problem. Like our freeway system, our state prison system is suffering from a deterioration of its infrastructure, because we have only built two new prisons in the last 14 years.

Most people don't realize it can cost as much as $200,000 a cell to build a new prison. Sadly, the time when we could use inmate labor to build prisons has long passed.

If it's a question of "Where are we going to get the money?" I would start by closing the more than 100-year-old San Quentin prison, selling the prison's 450 acres of prime real estate overlooking San Francisco Bay and using the money to build an estimated two or three new prisons. The annual tax base alone from such property would easily pay for the staffing of any new prisons.

As a matter of fact, many of the retired U.S. military bases within our state sit on prime real estate. Such property could be sold to raise funding needed for infrastructure construction and the new tax base would be a preferred option to placing the burden on our already overtaxed California residents.

Now to the issue of relief of prison overcrowding and early release. Some things are most cost effective when they run at full capacity. Anyone will tell you a hospital, hotel or cruise ship makes the most money when it is full. That is because its overhead is virtually the same amount whether it's full or not. The costs for labor, utilities and the building are going to remain nearly the same.

This also applies to prisons. When they are full they are the cheapest per day, per inmate for the state of California. The key to reducing our prison population is reducing our recidivism rate, which is approximately 70% every two years, the highest in the nation.

Overburdened parole officers, with an average caseload of 80 offenders at a time, cannot baby-sit these guys and not expect that they will be back.

My idea is simple. Most criminals serve only half or less of their actual sentences. This reduction is called "time off for good behavior." It should be held in reserve during the period of their probation and if a new felony conviction occurs, then the good time that was half of the previous conviction would be added to the time that must be served for the new crime.

This would provide the necessary "stick" in our failing rehabilitation programs and would quickly reduce recidivism and prison overcrowding.

Mike Reynolds is the father of Kimber Reynolds, who was murdered 1992 at the age of 18. He is also the father of "Three Strikes and You're Out" and "10-20-Life (Use A Gun and You're Done)," which are said to be among America's toughest crime laws.


Stop digging By Barry Krisberg
Mike, I am glad that you and I agree that California must and can safely reduce its prison population, although we may disagree on the methods to accomplish this goal. We are in good company. Former Gov. George Deukmejian, the "Little Hoover" Commission, a task force created by my organization including many top state and federal prosecutors, and a recent panel of experts created by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) all presented practical recommendations on how to safely reduce the prison population. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's first budget contained plans to drop the CDCR population by 15,000 inmates. The Corrections Peace Officers Assn., representing state prison workers, also has embraced the goal of safely reducing the inmate population.

California has the nation's most crowded prisons and among the highest parolee failure rates in the nation. Most of our new prisoners are inmates who were released from prison in the past 24 months and are recycling through again. The public has lost confidence in the corrections system. Two recent polls suggest that the voters believe that prisons make inmates more criminal and do not protect the public. The corrections system costs more than $10 billion a year and will soon exceed spending for higher education. We have built 22 new prisons in the past 20 years but opened only one new campus of the University of California — hardly a smart investment in our state's future.

Do we need to replace some of our antiquated prisons? Absolutely, and there is an urgent need to include medical and mental health facilities to manage the existing population. But, just expanding bed space won't get us out of this legal and public-policy mess. Since 1976, California expanded its prison bed capacity by more than 300%, but during the same period the inmate population grew by more than 800% because of harsher sentencing laws. After investing billions in new prisons, the CDCR is more crowded today than ever. Buildings are just part of the problem. A surge in new prisons that was adopted by the governor and the Legislature in AB 900 will run into formidable problems of finding enough corrections officers to man the new cells — the department is already short by almost 2,000 officers. We are finding it difficult to recruit doctors, psychologists, teachers and social workers to run existing prisons. The CDCR is offering premium salaries that will drain these trained professionals from the communities where the new prisons will be located.

Your idea of selling off the land at San Quentin would be a drop in the bucket for the more than $7 billion that the governor wants to spend to build 53,000 new cells, not counting the additional $2 billion a year it will take to operate those new beds. You say that to save money California should operate its prisons at full capacity. We are already running most state prisons at double and triple their design capacity. Overtime costs for corrections officers, medical costs and other expenses are already excessive. Also, the politicians seem unwilling to let the voters decide on prison bonds, fearing that they would be voted down, so new jail cells will be financed privately at much higher interest rates.

I will have more to say about reducing prisoner recidivism later, but your ideas on using good-time credits earned on the existing sentence to punish future crimes make no sense to me. Most of California's inmates have severe problems of drug addiction and lack basic life skills to make it in the community. More threats of added punishment have not worked and are not likely to work.

My father used to tell me, "When you find yourself getting deeper in a big hole, it's time to stop digging." This is very sound advice for Californians trying to solve our correctional crisis.

Dr. Barry Krisberg is the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a criminal justice research institute based in Oakland. This fall he will be teaching a class at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law on prisoner reentry.

Next day's Dust-Up >>
Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Day 4  |  Day 5

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