Monday, April 27, 2009

Baby Steps Away from Mass Imprisonment

As Matthew Yi reported in the SFChronicle over the weekend, California's mammoth correctional system has announced some first steps toward reducing its prison population. Faced with a mammoth federal lawsuit that may soon lead to court orders for population reductions, and the worst state fiscal situation in several decades, California's traditionally cautious correctional leadership has identified a series of steps it will take to reduce the prison population. These include:

Matt Cate, Schwarzenegger's prison secretary, said his proposal centers around drastic changes to the state's parole system - including releasing a quarter of the lower-risk parolees.

He also wants to cut the prison population by expanding good-behavior credits for inmates who take education and job-training classes, and shorter prison sentences by increasing the dollar-value threshold for grand theft.

Make no mistake, these are baby steps. Reducing the prison population by 8,000 persons will leave most of state's prisons dangerously overcrowded and only marginally improve the chances that the remaining prisoners will get access to education and other rehabilitation programs. The federal court considering California's prison population has indicated that a reduction of 20 to 50 thousand prisoners is in order. Reducing parolees will indirectly reduce the prison population by reducing the number of parolees returned to prison for technical parole violations, but the low risk prisoners who are going to be eliminated from parole are also less likely to produce technical violations, so the reduction will be minimal.

Nonetheless, all of these changes are in the right direction and can be carried out with no loss of public safety. They are already generating resistance from organizations representing correctional officers and some crime victims. This will be a good test of the ability of state leadership to respond to such resistance and ultimately for whether these groups can come to terms with the reality that California's era of ever-growing prisons is over.

In short order, however, we will need bolder steps. We should aim to reduce the prison population by at least 50 thousand over the next five years. We should consider eliminating parole in favor of a voucher based system to help released prisoners access drug treatment and other rehabilitative assistance and a modest expansion of the state police with a commitment to monitor a limited number of released prisoners with a track record for violent crime. We should reform the penal code to dramatically reduce the number of crimes for which prison terms are the presumptive sentence.

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