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Sounding Off: Legislature should rethink plan

Let’s look at the facts. Just this week UC Irvine released a study that shows "” not surprisingly "” a spike in aggravated assault, robbery and burglary when parolees return to their neighborhoods.

The Senate’s proposal to release criminals early, before completing their sentences, ignores common sense, disregards law enforcement concerns and is dangerous to law abiding citizens.

So why is it even being considered? Money. The state is strapped for cash and some in the legislature are using the state’s fiscal problems as an excuse to loosen up “tough on crime" measures passed by the voters.

Public safety should never be compromised because of a budget problem. The financial woes facing California are temporary but the consequences of what the legislature is proposing are not.

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In addition to the legislature’s early release proposal, the recent court order issued by the liberal three-judge panel calls for the release of more than 40,000 prisoners "” or about 25% of California’s inmate population back into our communities "” to ease prison crowding. Tough on crime laws have wrongly been blamed as the cause of so-called overcrowding.

Prior to the 1994 passage of California’s three strikes law, there was wide speculation that if passed, it would result in an explosive growth in California’s adult prison population.

That hasn’t proved true. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in its five-year estimate projected that three-strikes would increase the adult prison population from 123,000 in 1994 to 245,000 in 1999.

During that time period the actual prison population grew to only 162,000. Since then it has remained fairly stable at about 167,832, which represents a modest 4% growth over the last 10 years. And that modest growth rate occurred when the overall population of California increased by nearly 5 million residents.

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While the prison population has not ballooned as large as some would like you to believe, there are some very specific reasons for the financial problems facing our prisons.

A major factor is the skyrocketing cost of inmate health care. In 2000, CDCR’s healthcare expenditures were only $675 million but by 2008 they had shot through the roof to nearly $2.9 billion. That translates to about $14,000 per inmate each year that is spent on health care alone.

Yes, it is the state’s responsibility to provide prisoners with adequate health care that meets federal and state requirements, but it is not our job to create a platinum-plated prison healthcare system that provides better services for those who harm our society as opposed to those who contribute to it.

California has a 70% recidivism rate. That means that when a prisoner is released from prison, 70% of those released will be back in prison within three years.

Rather than spending billions of taxpayer dollars on glossy health care, it would make more sense to finance programs that successfully rehabilitate prisoners or even better, keep them from entering the corrections system in the first place.

A December 2007 report from the CDCR’s Rehabilitation Strike Team found that “fully 50% of all exiting California prisoners did not participate in any rehabilitation or work program nor did they have a work assignment, during their entire prison term."

Releasing prisoners without effectively providing job-training or educational programs has disastrous results "” of the 70% that return to prison, 14% will commit an estimated 13 crimes before being re-apprehended, and of those 13 crimes, 20% will be violent.

Another enormous cost is that of housing criminal illegal immigrants. In 2003, 75% of the nation’s criminal aliens were incarcerated in just five states. California housed 40% of those inmates "” about 30,000 prisoners.

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This costs California taxpayers an estimated $35,587 annually per prisoner at a total cost of nearly $1 billion dollars. The federal government is mandated to reimburse the state for the costs associated with these inmates yet California pays about 89% of the costs compared to the federal government’s 11%.

The governor has said he wants to release almost 8,500 illegal immigrants to federal custody, but last week an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that “federal officials said they don’t even have the resources to deport all illegal immigrants with criminal records who are identified" in the proposed inmate immigration status check that started last week in Los Angeles County jails. How can we expect them to find the resources to deport another 8,500? These criminals could also end up back on our streets.

Multiple issues are at play in running an efficient and responsible prison system; however, the public’s safety should never be open to debate. Demonizing and blaming tough-on-crime laws for all that ails the corrections system is a scare tactic that jeopardizes the safety and integrity of our neighborhoods.

In their court opinion, the federal judges suggest that releasing convicted criminals into our communities can be done “without a meaningful adverse impact on public safety." Who are they kidding?


TOM HARMAN represents the 35th State Senatorial district, which includes Laguna Beach.


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