The current practice by California prison officials of categorizing and housing some prisoners in higher level institutions than necessary has been blasted by a new report funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (CDCR)
The report found that current administrative practice—called classification—creates a criminogentic effect that make offenders more dangerous than they were before entering one of the state’s 33 prisons. In addition, the report points out that CDCR’s classification methodology allows favorable factors that would dissuade placement in higher-level institutions to be ignored— resulting in many well-behaved prisoners being miscategorized. Nearly 68 percent of California’s prisoners are housed in higher security facilities. Once these miscategorized offenders are released from prison, their likelihood for return is greatly increased, according to the report.
California prisons have four security levels and prisoners are assigned to a specific institution based upon their classification score. Prisoners assigned to institutions that are Level I or Level II generally live in dormitories and need little supervision, while prisoners assigned to Level III or Level IV live in cells and require constant supervision. Notably, celled housing is far more costly to construct and operate than dormitories.
During the classification process, prisoners are given a preliminary score based on their social history and criminal record. Annual re-classification adjusts that score relative to their in–prison behavior, with points added for misconduct or subtracted for good behavior. However, instead of relying on demonstrated behavior, prisoners are often over-classified by the application of Close Custody designations and Mandatory Minimums, two components that override preliminary scores to determine prisoner placement.
Close Custody is a designation reserved for prisoners considered an escape risk and make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s 144,000 prisoners. However, the report found no evidence to support the continued use of the Close Custody designation as 27 of California’s 33 prisons have electric fences and no prisoner has ever escaped from an institution with a lethal electrified fence.
Mandatory Minimums further restrict the placement of identified prisoners based solely on their commitment offense. Although commonly perceived as more dangerous, prisoners “convicted of violent crimes tend to be better behaved in prison” than others. The report found Mandatory Minimums over-classifies many well-behaved prisoners, placing them in higher security levels than necessary. Notably, prisoners serving life without parole were found to be 21 percent less likely to commit future acts of violence when compared to prisoners serving shorter sentences.
The report noted recent studies of the federal prison system found that moving a prisoner up just one level from minimum security “doubles the prisoner’s chances of being rearrested within three years.” In California, another study found that Level III prisoners housed in Level I settings are 31 percent less likely to return to prison.
The report concluded a prisoner’s in-prison behavior is the best predictor of future conduct and recommended prison administrators rely on that factor instead of Close Custody designations and Mandatory Minimums to determine their prison placement—noting that prisoners with classification scores at or near the threshold of each security level could safely be moved down one level. The report also found many older prisoners may be safely moved to lower security level prisons.