“Criminal justice policies that rely on building and operating more prisons to address community safety concerns are not sustainable” and they will not result in improved public safety, reports the California Little Hoover Commission.
In its February finding, commission Chair Jonathan Shapiro called California’s correctional system “a slow-motion disaster.”
The commission is a bipartisan and independent state oversight agency.
The commission operates in the interest of taxpayers. It holds public hearings, consults with experts and visits government operations in action in order to help government agencies perform better. Its conclusions are given to the governor and Legislature for consideration.
Seven years ago, the commission issued “an unusually blistering report warning that time was running out for California policymakers to resolve the state’s corrections crisis.” (Solving California’s Corrections Crisis: Time is Running Out)
The commission urged policymakers to amend the Penal Code to reflect that the purpose of incarceration cannot just be punishment, but also to reduce recidivism and successful community reintegration. “Rehabilitative programs and reducing crime are not mutually exclusive,” the commission said.
“District attorneys who collectively have opposed even the slightest changes to sentencing laws are going to have to compromise,” the commission report said. Bringing prison population to levels that do not violate the ban against cruel and unusual punishment “cannot be achieved without eliminating the state’s chronic imbalance between what its sentencing laws require and the resources available to incarcerate offenders.”
“Scientific research in the past 40 years has led to significant progress in many areas in California,” the commission noted. “When it comes to criminal justice sentencing, however, California has ignored the science.”
The commission cited the national trend in attitude toward incarceration policies, noting that taxpayers “do not want to pay for failed policies that cycle offenders in and out of prison or incarcerate the mentally ill and the addicted for lengthy sentences without access to quality treatment.”
The commission recognized that Realignment demonstrated that “California is serious about addressing its prison overcrowding problem.” However, “Realignment alone will not be enough to bring the department into compliance with the Supreme Court order,” according to an April 2012 report issued by CDCR.
The commission cited plans to build new prison beds:
Over the past several years, the state has allocated $1.7 billion to expand local correctional facilities. The state has awarded $1.2 billion to 21 counties for an expected expansion of 9,000 jail beds. The Board of State and Community Corrections plans to award another $500 million to 15 counties for additional local capacity in 2014.
In September 2013, policymakers enacted SB 105, which authorized $315 million in the 2014-15 budget and $1 billion in additional funding over three years for the state to lease additional prison cells, either county jail space or private correctional facilities both in and outside of California.
In the governor’s 2014-15 budget proposal, Brown proposed an additional $500 million for more expansion and improvements to local facilities for program space.
By the Numbers:
The state previously had built 12 prisons over the course of 132 years. During the 20-year building campaign between 1984 and 2005, California policymakers enacted hundreds of laws increasing sentence length, adding sentence enhancements and creating new sentencing laws. The result was that every new prison the state built filled to capacity quickly.
With the exception of the recently completed California Health Care Facility and the planned infill housing previously described, California ended its prison-building boom with the opening of Kern Valley State Prison in 2005. This was after adding 21 new facilities between 1984 and 2005.
Prior to the February 2014 court order, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation projected that the prison population would slowly continue to climb to approximately 136,600 by June 2014 and more than 142,000 by 2019 barring any additional changes, moving the state away from the 137.5 percent of capacity required by the courts.
In its Fall 2013 Adult Population Projections report, CDCR reported a spike in new admissions of offenders with a second strike in 2012-13, an increase of 32.6 percent over the previous fiscal year.
Approximately 20 percent, some 25,000 offenders, are serving term-to-life sentences, for example, 15-years-to-life in prison.
Of these, approximately 10,000 “lifers” have passed their minimum term. Nearly a third of the offenders serving life terms with the possibility of parole, which is more than 8,000 offenders, are 50 years old or older. Almost half of the offenders serving 25 years to life as a result of a third strike, nearly 4,200 offenders, also are older than 50.
CDCR data show that less than 5 percent of lifers released from prison are returned to prison for a new crime, compared to 51 percent of the rest of the prison population released from prison.