Prisons, Politics And Public Perceptions
Violent crime is down, but incarceration numbers are up. What happens when our prisons are full in 2000?
Thursday, July 23, 1998
Maximum security Salinas Valley State Prison opened in May of 1996, designed to house 2,224 inmates, mostly lifers and other serious offenders. Within seven months, it was crammed with 4,225 prisoners.
Two inmates are being placed into cells designed for one. The gymnasiums and day-rooms are now filled with bunk beds in most prisons. And still, the California prison system is almost full, unable to keep up with our "tough on crime" demands.
The California Department of Corrections (CDC) now estimates the system will be full--with no room for a single new prisoner--sometime in the year 2000, less than two years away.
Yet the Legislature and governor''s office have become paralyzed by the issue, with key Democrats loathe to continue our brisk prison-building pace, and Republicans unwilling to consider sentencing reform measures or increased funding for crime prevention programs that might slow the inmate growth rate.
Despite steadily falling crime rates, crime continues to top the list of public concerns, so politicians use that fear to score political points with bills to increase sentences (more than 100 this session), while bills to reduce or evaluate sentences (less than a half-dozen) come at professional peril.
Yet the tab for this approach is now coming due. Despite spending nearly $5.3 billion on new prison construction in the last dozen years, a doubling of the inmate population to more than 158,000 people in that same time has filled all those new spaces and more. The system is at 190 percent of design capacity.
Governor Pete Wilson wants more prisons, and he now advocates contracting out to let the private sector build and oversee another 5,000 prison beds, a move that has put him at odds with one of his biggest political benefactors: the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
While his choice of for-profit jailers may surprise the prison guard union, his support for building new prisons should not surprise anyone. Throughout his governorship, Wilson has been unbending in his opposition to sentencing reform, shifting more resources to crime prevention or anything that could be construed as "soft on crime."
"The growth of California''s prison population is caused by many deplorable factors. Long prison sentences has not been one of them," Wilson wrote in his 1994 veto of Assembly Bill 2944, which would have created a California Sentencing Commission to analyze our state''s criminal justice system.
Veteran Sen. John Vasconcellos, the Santa Clara Democrat who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, sponsored that bill, another effort that failed in 1995, and a similar bill this session, Senate Bill 670, that is now stalled in the Assembly. He sees demagoguery at the heart of the problem.
"It''s politicians trying to be popular with people''s fear, that''s as simple as I can say it," Vasconcellos says. "And the public is a co-conspirator in all of this."
Still, whether we should be building new prisons or taking steps to reduce the inmate population, we should be doing something about a prison system reaching its breaking point. But we''re not.
Assemblyman Fred Keeley, our own local representative and the third-ranking Democrat in the Assembly, sits on the conference committee that is currently hashing out the overdue state budget.
Asked about the likelihood that the 5,000 private prisons beds sought by Wilson will be part of the budget, Keeley says, "Right now, I think it''s not very likely," but it could be included as part of the budget deal.
But Keeley and fellow Democrats oppose maintaining our rapid prison building pace: "We indulged in an enormous prison building binge in the early ''90s."
Rather, he and other like-minded legislators would like to see more done to reduce the high numbers of people being sent to prison, both through crime prevention measures and alternative sentencing models. Yet such legislation is scarce now, and Keeley blames Wilson and his hair-trigger vetoes.
"It''s pretty clear that we have a governor that is not going to respond well to the other strategies," says Keeley. "If there is a Democratic governor, I think you''ll see a renewed effort to be smart on crime, instead of just tough. There''s a place for being tough on crime, but in my view, it is equally, if not more, important to be smart. My advocacy is let''s get a governor with whom you can have a reasonable conversation about how to proceed."
Yet those who hope the governor''s race will bring any great change to the state could be disappointed, as both Republican Dan Lungren and Democrat Gray Davis proudly proclaim their toughness on crime and support for building more prisons and the stiffer sentencing laws that make that necessary.
The reason candidates voice such toughness, Vasconcellos says, is they know that''s the only way to get elected given the public''s current mood: "The campaign consultants make it clear that the only way you can get elected is to have a good, tough, law-and-order image. And to get a cops'' group endorsement, you put in penalty enhancement bills so you look like you''re tough on crime. It''s bullshit, and it ought to be called."
But for now, that''s the game, and it''s a game that doesn''t bode well for our prison system, especially because the same public that wants longer sentences also keeps voting down prison construction bond measures.
"We''re sort of at a stalemate with the prisons right now, with public safety hanging in the balance," says Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA).
Yet the clock is running. It takes roughly 40 months to build a new prison, slightly less time for the controversial private prison camps Corcoran calls "dungeons for dollars." California has nine such private prisons now, most quietly opened in the last year.
But the real need now is not for such minimum security prison camps, but for the full-blown maximum security prisons required by the felons now being handed long sentences.
"It''s not just how many beds you have, it''s what level," says Kati Corsaut, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections.
If nothing is done to address a system that is filling up, CDC will be forced to find space for the new prisoners, even if that means triple bunking or other tools for increasing density, all of which both CDC and CCPOA say are unacceptable security risks with the potential to escalate violence.
Then, California would be at risk for the federal courts to intervene and change the unsafe and/or inhumane conditions, as has happened with both prison systems, like that in Texas, and jails, like that in Stockton: "A federal judge will set a population cap and turn felons loose," Corcoran says.
It is a difficult situation that, if not dealt with this year as everyone watches the governor''s race, will be an even more pressing problem next year.
"It means the next governor is going to have a real challenge on his hands," says Keeley.
How We Got Here
While the underlying rationales are open to debate, we know why the prison growth rate is so high: there are more criminal statutes, longer sentences, higher recidivism rates and stricter parole revocation conditions than there were 10 years ago.
Tougher laws, new criminal statutes and high crime rates in the late ''80s have given the California prison system an 8.8 percent compounded annual growth rate in the last 10 years. The rate has slowed to a still high 7 percent in the last couple years, even as crime rates post major declines.
After California voters increased sentences for repeat felons by approving "Three Strikes and You''re Out" in 1994, and legislators followed suit with hundreds of sentence enhancements, average felony sentences went from 47.3 months then to 57.1 months this year, according to the California Department of Corrections.
"The turnover is not what it used to be. Some people that might have gotten probation are getting longer terms," Corsaut says. "When you have longer sentences, your population gets larger, and it stays that way."
Meanwhile, the Legislature and Board of Prison Terms in the last two years have added more banned behaviors to parole conditions, and made it easier to revoke parole for gang members and those the Penal Code labels "serious offenders."
"Violations that were not previously being recorded are now being reported [to the Board of Prison Terms, which revokes parole]," says Deborah Star, the regional parole administrator for Northern California, including Monterey County.
As a result, 60 percent of parolees are now returned to prison for reasons ranging from new crimes to being seen with gang members or testing positive for drugs or alcohol. Just five years ago, less than 40 percent of parolees were returned to prison.
Nationwide, most states have followed the lead of California, which has by far the most inmates--and among the top incarceration rates--in the country...or the world, for that matter.
As of July 1, 1997, the last date for which the Department of Justice''s Bureau of Justice Statistics compiled comprehensive numbers, 645 of every 100,000 Americans were behind bars. That ratio has risen every year since 1985, when 313 per 100,000 were incarcerated. Both Canada and Great Britain lock up just over 100 per 100,000 citizens.
Yet crime rates have been dropping steadily in recent years. The Department of Justice says the overall crime index is on a seven-year decline, while property crime continues a 22-year decline and violent crime rates have dropped every year since 1994.
Some say it is the "get-tough" policies that have brought crime rates down: "These laws are bringing the crime rate down and making people safer," says Sara Brown, a spokeswoman for attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren.
Others say the crime rate drop is part of a natural cycle--one that began even before "Three Strikes" was enacted--and note that there is usually less crime during strong economies, like that of the past few years.
Whatever the case, the fact remains that even with fewer crimes being committed each year, and more of the criminals being kept behind bars for longer terms, we are still finding more and more people every single year to send to prison.
And that takes a toll both on the resources available to address other societal problems and, of course, on the people we are sending to prison.
Ignoring the Problem
It isn''t as though politicians don''t know there is a problem with our state''s high incarceration rates--both from humanitarian and fiscal perspectives--even if they are largely ignoring the problem.
The Legislative Analyst''s Office last year tried to focus official attention on the problem with its report, "Addressing the State''s Long-Term Inmate Population Growth," a detailed study that laid out dozens of options for both sentencing reform and expansion of the prison system.
To deal with a projected prison housing shortfall of 70,000 inmates by the year 2006, the LAO recommends a package of specific sentencing reforms that would reduce the inmate population by 34,920, and increase new prison construction to add 36,080 new beds.
All of the sentencing reform and crime prevention proposals in the report were modest--"we have chosen policy options that we believe are both cost-effective and minimize the risks to public safety," read the report--yet none have been given serious consideration by the Legislature.
"If anything, it''s gone the other way, with more bills to enhance sentences," says Chuck Nichol, the legislative analyst who prepared the report.
The problem was also studied by the Little Hoover Commission--an independent government oversight body, whose members are appointed by the governor and Legislature--which released "Beyond Bars: Correctional Reforms to Lower Prison Costs and Reduce Crime" in January.
The report says fundamental policy changes are needed to address "an inmate overcrowding crisis that worsens each day," a problem created mostly by increased sentences for felons and lack of rehabilitation programs, and "compounded by inappropriate sanctions for low-level property criminals and a policy of incarceration instead of treatment for drug users."
The detailed recommendations in that report, too, have been largely ignored by the Legislature in this election year. Advocates of changes find the situation reprehensible.
"We can''t build our way out of this problem," says Jenni Gainsborough of the American Civil Liberties Union''s National Prison Project. "Nobody is asking the basic question of, ''Why are we doing this?''"
The answer, she says, is public anger over crime. But the price has been an unjust policy of unexamined incarceration.
"If we are really going to deal effectively with prison overcrowding, maybe we need to look at some of the other potential ways that are more effective in terms of outcomes," says Keeley. "When you have 50 percent of people in the state prison system who are there for drug-related offenses, maybe we need to try to go to the root of the problem with them."
The Vasconcellos bill creating the California Sentencing Commission would create a top-to-bottom study of our current system, including sentencing, crime rates and prison capacity.
"The Legislature has passed more than 1,000 sentencing bills in the past decade," Vasconcellos wrote, "yet the public is more terrified than ever. More of the same--reactive piecemeal determinate sentencing changes--will only serve to deliver more of the same costly failures. A sentencing commission charged with developing a modified indeterminate sentencing system would allow longer and discretionary terms for violent offenders and fixed terms for non-violent offenders, all based on rational factors."
In his veto of the bill in 1994, Gov. Wilson acknowledged there is a problem with our high incarceration rates but--inexplicably, except, perhaps, in the world of politics--denied long sentences create higher prison populations.
"The bill identifies real problems, but struggles, as does California, in attributing causes and finding solutions. It presumes that the proliferation of prisoners is a problem attributable to the sentencing structure and that remedies lie in the lowering of some sentences," Wilson wrote, before denying long prison sentences were to blame for overcrowding.
But back at Salinas Valley State Prison, where life is a daily struggle to find room for "Three Strikes" cases and other felons, Wilson doesn''t find much support for that viewpoint. "As overcrowded as we are," spokesman Rick Hager says, "it''s sometimes tough to match inmates up with cells." cw