Fears of danger from early prisoner release may be exaggerated, officials say.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Inside an orange-lit housing unit at Salinas Valley State Prison, inmates with gang tattoos and shaved heads peer out from the sliver-sized windows of their 8-by-12-foot cells. The prisoners, whose crimes range from three strikes’ felonies to murder, are mostly hardened gang members: Norteños, Sureños, Bloods, Crips, Aryan Brotherhood. Correction officers keep them locked up because fights in this tightly secured facility often involve shanks, not fists. Don’t worry. The state isn’t planning to release these Soledad prisoners anytime soon.
In all likelihood, none of the high-risk felons would be affected by a plan to cut short some inmates’ sentences, says Eric Moore, the prison’s acting facility captain. While local law enforcement leaders worry that the proposal to reduce the state’s prisoner population by 27,300 this fiscal year will cause a spike in crime, only low-risk offenders, criminal immigrants, and rehabilitation program graduates would be released early, says Seth Unger, spokesman for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“We’re trying to avoid the type of mass release that has been feared by law enforcement and local communities,” Unger says. “We are not opening the gates to the prison.” But CDCR’s budget fix is quickly getting stripped down in the state Legislature.
WE ARE NOT OPENING THE GATES TO THE PRISON.
The Senate on Aug. 20 narrowly passed legislation, which would: allow nonviolent felons to serve the last 12 months of their prison sentences on house arrest; offer alternative custody to elderly and medically infirm felons; change “wobbler” offenses like writing bad checks and receiving stolen property to misdemeanors; authorize the governor to commute prison sentences of deportable immigrants; and give additional sentence credits for inmates who get their GED or complete vocational training. The plan stalled in the Assembly, however, after lawmakers proposed taking out the most controversial elements, including the early release program and downgrading property crimes to misdemeanors. Assembly members also want to set aside a commission that would overhaul the state’s sentencing guidelines.
By the Weekly’s deadline, the Assembly was scheduled to vote on the legislation as soon as Wednesday, Aug. 26, said a spokeswoman for Speaker Karen Bass. Removing the contentious provisions would make the package fall short of reaching the $1.2 billion that was cut out of the corrections budget and stymie relief of prison overcrowding. A federal judge panel recently ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 40,000 due to unconstitutional healthcare delivery.
But passing major prison reform in crisis mode doesn’t equal good policy, says Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo. “They are changing the law in a very rapid way without really apprising the public in order to achieve a budget goal,” Flippo says.
The California District Attorney’s Association opposed the Senate bill, which would increase the monetary threshold for a felony charge from $400 to $2,500 for vehicle theft. With this change, more criminals would be sentenced to county jail than state prison. “They’re shifting the burden of dealing with this influx of inmates and placing it on our locals,” Flippo says.
Sheriff Mike Kanalakis says he’s concerned about early release prisoners re-offending and winding up in his jail, which like the state’s prisons, is holding inmates far beyond its capacity. “The release of inmates prior to completing their sentence is going to cause a reaction that will overburden law enforcement,” Kanalakis says, pointing out that 70 percent of the state’s prisoners recommit crimes.
It’s too early to pinpoint how many inmates will be released in Monterey County. According to the latest data, more than 1,800 prisoners in the state prison are from Monterey County, Unger says; only a small portion would be eligible to serve the last year of their sentences on house arrest with GPS monitoring. A total of 6,300 inmates across the state would be released into alternative custody.
Moreover, the changes in state law would not be applied retroactively, Unger says – somebody in prison for writing a bad check wouldn’t be released because the crime became a misdemeanor.
The aim of the prison plan, Unger adds, is to keep people out of prison to begin with, by placing technical parole violators on GPS supervision instead of behind bars. Bill Ziering, who represents Monterey Peninsula-based Coalition of Churches for Reentry and Restoration, backs this idea.
Ziering’s group supports the now-dead proposal to build 12 reentry facilities across the state. He says the state should put more resources into job training, family counseling and housing for parolees so they can integrate into society instead of returning to crime. “When they get out, we have to look in advance so we can prepare for their homecoming,” Ziering says.
But the prison proposal doesn’t strive to reduce recidivism; it calls for cutting $250 million from rehabilitation programs.
Back at Salinas Valley State, Moore says prison officials are waiting to see what happens in Sacramento. “Until it’s in law, we don’t know how it’s going to affect us,” he says.