Three judges and a crowded prison

Today, Reynolds and Krisberg discuss the three-judge panel that will review the question of capping California's prison population. Previously, they debated crime rates and incarceration, prison overcrowding. Later this week, they'll focus on mandatory sentencing laws and other issues.

Why haven't we built more prisons

California has, by far, the largest general population of any state in the nation, with more than 36 million people. Therefore, it cannot be a surprise — or unexpected — that we also have the largest prison population, with 172,000 inmates. However, our incarceration rates place California in 19th place nationally in inmates-per-100,000-residents. Texas, for example, has half California's general population but locks up almost the same number of criminals as California.

The federal court's consideration of early release is based on an inadequate amount of prison housing. The real question is "Why did California build 19 new prisons before 'three strikes' in 1994 and only two new prisons in the last 14 years?"

It is no secret that the powerful and liberal Democratic Party-controlled state Legislature has been opposed to "three strikes" from the start and has introduced legislation to destroy it nearly every year since its passage; only the fact that it was also passed into law with an initiative by the voters and thus can only be overturned by a two-thirds legislative majority and a governor's signature has kept "three strikes" in place.

But a determined and devious liberal legislative leadership decided they would be able to cut off any new or necessary prison construction funding and wait for our prison population to overwhelm housing capacity, then blame "three strikes."

That did not happen within the first five years as they predicted, or in 10 years. Now, close to 15 years later, we see overcrowding. But that is clearly the result of not building while our state's population grew.

Our federal courts' decision to appoint a board to depopulate our prisons will start a very dangerous cycle if they are not very careful. Further reducing the time to serve for inmates who are for the most part only doing half their time already is, in effect, taking the penalty out of crime. Simply put, laws without penalties are no laws at all.

What would make more sense is for the federal court to withdraw federal inmates who are serving their time in our state prisons and place them in federal prisons where they belong. Federal inmates constitute 15% to 20% of our total inmate population and could clear between 30,000 to 35,000 beds, thus eliminating the need for new construction.

If you want an extensive two-decade breakdown of hard facts and crime stats, check out

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.

The courts had no choice

First let's get the facts straight. The federal court created a three-judge panel to decide if a limit on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, inmate population is needed. If they make this finding, it will be up to state officials to propose how this cap will be met. This is not an automatic step that releases prisoners on an emergency basis. There are a variety of ways that the state could prudently and safely reduce the prison population without releasing dangerous felons. The specter of the prison doors suddenly springing open is part of the fear-mongering campaign that some have used to justify inaction.

The prisons are dangerously overcrowded. This population crisis is one reason why the state has been unable to meet its legal obligations to meet promised improvements in prison medical and mental health care. Further, jammed prisons endanger the lives of both the inmates and the staff who work there. In other states, similar levels of crowding have led to riots, hostage taking, suicides and murders. If you want to read how bad it is in California prisons, just read Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Prison Emergency Proclamation that allowed the transfer of inmates to other states.

Now I am not sure what is to be gained in this issue by vilifying past members of the Legislature for their votes over a decade ago. You may have forgotten, Mike, but the people of California repeatedly voted down bond measures that were designed for more prison construction. And wherever you stand on the "three strikes" law, there is no need to put inmates and correctional officers in life-threatening conditions in state prisons.

In my view, the federal courts had no choice but to take action because state officials had failed to come up with credible solutions. For example, a special session of the Legislature on prisons last year produced no action. The prison population continues to grow, and the plan to transfer inmates out of state has met very limited success. This year, the governor proposed a comprehensive set of sentencing and corrections reforms, but the Legislature would only approve a massive building plan and minimal funding to begin a few small rehabilitation programs. The prison reform bill AB 900 will take years to produce any real relief for crowding pressures, if at all. The federal court had to weigh the very real dangers to staff and inmates that would persist for many years to come, rather than waiting for state plans to come to pass.

The court-appointed experts said adding more cells could make things worse in the medical and mental health areas by stretching the corrections staff past the breaking point. The federal judges urged the state to continue to attempt to reduce the incarcerated population and avoid more drastic steps. Your suggestion of transferring some federal inmates back to the Bureau of Prisons is worth looking at. The CDCR should explore this option. Further, there are thousands of California inmates who are potentially deportable under U.S. immigration laws. Some of these inmates could be given over to the federal government. The goal is to reduce crowding in an expeditious manner, and we need to see leadership on the part of California to examine all safe options.

The boogeyman of early release has been consistently talked about in the media by politicians and some law enforcement officials. Interestingly, the facts are less scary. Since 1980, there have been 14 objective studies completed in the U.S. and in Canada about the public safety consequences of capping the prison population. The studies included states such as Florida, Texas and Illinois, as well as an older study from California. Every single study showed that the recidivism rates of released inmates were the same as or better than those of inmates who served their full terms. Careful screening of inmates and community services actually produced lower rates of failure. As for crime rates, there was no jurisdiction in which the studies showed an increase in crime during the time that the prison population was reduced.

While it would be better public policy to reduce the prison population through systematic sentencing reform and smarter parole policies, prison population caps have not proved to endanger public safety. Building more beds may only make the problems far worse. California has had a long list of reports on how to effectively reduce prison crowding. What has been lacking has been the political will to take the needed actions. The federal courts may have finally given our leaders the requirement to exercise sound judgment and political courage.

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

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