Voters are being asked Nov. 8 to approve two bond issues that will raise $1.3 billion to further expand the state’s badly overcrowded jails and prisons.
Proposition 80 would raise $817 million for state youth and adult correctional facilities. Proposition 86 would raise $500 million for county adult and juvenile jails.
Much of the impetus for the building program comes from Gov. George Deukmejian, who as a legislator authored tough anti-crime legislation and now promises to keep building prisons as long as there is a need.
Deukmejian recently told police officers attending the California Hispanic Law Enforcement Conference in Pasadena that packing criminals into prisons was preferable to probation, work furlough or early release.
“Some are talking again about finding alternatives to incarceration. Society tried that before, and it didn’t work. We will not consider additional alternatives to prison until dangerous criminals consider alternatives to crime,” Deukmejian said.
Using a line stolen from a wine advertisement, Deukmejian wisecracked, “Our motto is that we will release no prisoner before his time.”
Proposition 80 would provide $727 million for building new state prisons, $40 million for building or renovating county jails and $50 million to improve California Youth Authority facilities.
The measure is the fourth prison bond measure put before voters in recent years. In 1981, a bond issue raised $495 million. A 1984 bond issue raised $300 million. Another $500 million was raised in 1986. Each won by a substantial margin.
Among projects under construction is a 2,000-bed women’s prison in Madera County, which will be the world’s largest women’s prison when it is completed. The 1986 bond measure financed the 1,450-bed facility planned for a site southeast of Los Angeles Civic Center.
Proposition 80 would provide money for two prisons in Kern County, one in Wasco and the other in Delano. Each is being designed to house 1,750 prisoners. It would also provide funding for a proposed prison near Lancaster in north Los Angeles County and provide additional financing for various projects already under way.
Despite the construction activity, the state cannot keep up with the mushrooming prison population, which has tripled since 1978. Ten years ago, state prisons housed 21,000 inmates. Now there are 74,012 prisoners in a system designed for 44,000. State projections foresee an inmate population of 100,000 by the early 1990s.
Some reception centers, where prisoners entering the system are housed, are operating at 250% to 300% of their capacity. Most prison cells designed for one inmate have double bunk beds; in some cases, cells built for one or two prisoners are housing three or four inmates. Television and recreation rooms, classrooms and gymnasiums have been filled with bunk beds and turned into dormitories.
Since 1981, the state has spent $2.2 billion expanding the prison system. Most of the growth has come since Deukmejian was elected. Since 1984, the system has expanded to house 20,000 more prisoners.
But that figure is deceptive, because even the new prisons are filled beyond their official capacities. For example, the state prison in Vacaville, which underwent a major expansion in 1984, was designed for 2,404 inmates, but 3,990 are housed there. Facilities under construction will have an official capacity of 7,300 prisoners but will probably end up housing more.
Officials say the increase in the prison population is due mostly to passage of tougher laws mandating prison terms for certain crimes and a crackdown on parole violators.
Christine May, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said Proposition 80 “will allow us to barely keep pace with the increasing population.”
Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), the legislative author of the four bond measures, expects no interruption in the growth of the inmate population. “There is no indication at this time that the influx is going to taper off significantly,” he said.
Presley argues that building more cells is less costly than letting criminals out on the street. He cited studies by the U.S. Department of Justice estimating that while it costs $25,000 a year, on average, to keep a career criminal in prison, “it may cost $200,000 to $400,000 a year when he or she is on the outside victimizing citizens, committing new crimes.”
County jails, particularly those in large urban areas, are just as crowded. Proposition 86 would provide $500 million statewide to build new jails.
Inmates are being released early in many counties because of the influx of new convicts. Estimates are that jails in 41 of California’s 56 counties are holding more inmates than they were designed for, and courts have intervened in 21 of the counties to impose limits on the number that can be housed in the local jails.
40,000 Inmates Released
Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block said the county’s jail system is designed for 13,000 inmates, but the average daily population hovers at 22,000 inmates, the maximum the courts will allow. Because of overcrowding, Block said in the last six months he has been forced to release 40,000 inmates before their terms were up.
“We were releasing people three days early, then five days early, and now 13 days early,” Block said. “It frustrates the criminal justice system. The system is not functioning as it should.”
Los Angeles County would get about 30% of the money, roughly $160 million, for construction, reconstruction or remodeling of jail facilities. To qualify for the money, counties will have to provide 25% of the project’s cost and meet other requirements.
The state Board of Corrections estimates that by 1990, if Proposition 86 passes and counties provide matching money, county jails either already built or under construction will be able to house 64,834 inmates (up from 33,070 in 1980). But even then projections indicate that the daily inmate population will be 76,414 prisoners.
Jail populations have been growing about 12% a year over the last three years.
Voters approved a $530-million jail bond issue in 1984 and a $475-million measure in 1986.