California's state correctional system, its prisons and parole system, have been on a path toward demographic crisis for years, with massively overcrowded and dysfunctionally designed prisons, and a parole system that regularly sent most of them back to prison after initial release for indiscriminate reasons. So long as the state's long economic boom continued (or wasn't interrupted for too long), this structural threat to the state's fiscal and public health remained under the radar for most Californians; no longer.
First came the mega prison lawsuits known as Plata v. Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger and the special three judge panel that in a recent preliminary ruling suggested that systemic failures to deliver basic medical care and mental health treatment as required by the Constitution can only be remedied through a significant reduction in California's prison population and signaled that they are ready to order such a reduction soon.
Now comes the murder of four Oakland police officers by Lovelle Mixon, an Oakland resident who was on parole and wanted for parole violations at the time Oakland police attempted to apprehend him last Saturday (as well we have more recently learned, a suspect in the rape of at least one girl).
Both shocks to the normally complacent attitude about mass incarceration in California have led to a focus on parole. Governor Schwarzenegger has described the parole system as broken and based his plans for reducing the prison overcrowding problem in large part on better use of parole to reduce recidivism. The three judge panel has indicated that changing the practice of indiscriminately returning parolees with technical violations to state prisons, inevitably for short terms (12 months is the statutory maximum) is one way to begin reducing the prison population. Now politicians, especially AG and likely candidate for governor Jerry Brown, are highlighting the failed practice of parole in California as responsible for the Oakland police deaths.
As the author of a dissertation, and later a book on parole that was largely based on the California case I fear that this focus on parole, is potentially misleading even though there are lots of ways to improve parole (none of them cheap either fiscally or politically).
I will address these opportunities in posts over the next few days. For now I want to offer one very skeptical point. The implication that California's correctional crisis can be resolved by administrative adjustments in parole or even statutory modifications is dead wrong. We send too many people to state prison indiscriminately. Parole (which has no power to release prisoners, it is strictly a system of post-release supervision and revocation) is part of that problem but only about half, the other half is the county level power structure topped by DAs, aided by judges, and facilitated and encouraged by opportunistic politicians from both parties and both branches of government in Sacramento. California counties, some of them, send far too many of their community members to state prison rather than attempting to punish and reform them in at home in their county (through jail and probation). The reasons for this run deep and have as much to do with state finance as with penal policy. For now I would just urge all readers to question any expert who claims our correctional crisis can be solved by reforming parole.