Half A Loaf Is Not Enough On Prison Reform
George Skelton writes about some of the accomplishments on deck in the next week in the Legislature. Beyond the renewable energy standard, which would be a solid accomplishment, and water, which really is kind of an unknown, Skelton looks at the prison "reform" bill, where he is both right and wrong.
The goal is threefold: to reform a system that has the worst-in-the-nation recidivism rate -- 70% -- for inmates released from prison. To begin substantially reducing the overcrowded prison population before federal courts do, as they've threatened. And to save the $1.2-billion already slashed from the prison budget on paper, but not in reality.
There apparently will be no compromising with Republicans. They're having no part of it, playing the law-and-order card as they have for decades -- advocating long lockups but opposing any tax increases to pay for the bulging prisons [...]
One thing that's needed, he and other reformers contend, is more education, drug rehab and job training for inmates. Another is a better parole system. A scaled-down bill passed by the Assembly on Monday seeks to encourage the former and achieve the latter [...]
Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) are trying to restore much of the Senate version, which also included an independent commission to update California's sentencing structure. But their problem is Assembly Democrats. Some are scared of being portrayed as a crime softie by a future campaign opponent. Steinberg took a shot at them Tuesday.
"It's time to say, 'Come on,' " the Senate leader told reporters. "We have a law-and-order Republican governor who is willing to sign a comprehensive package with absolutely essential reforms that protects public safety. It's time to get real [...]
Steinberg and Bass may coax more votes from the skittish Democrats.
But if they can't, the good-time incentives and parole improvements alone would be worth passing. They'd mark substantial progress toward prison reform.
As I've said, the current bill is not a prison reform bill, but a parole reform bill. The education, treatment and job training encouraged is immediately undercut by the Governor's slashing of those programs as part of the deal. And the lack of an independent sentencing commission means that we're likely to see both increased sentencing laws and increases in the prison population continue, and we'll all be back here in 10-15 years.
That said, parole reform IS a key element. Changing the situation where 2/3 of the convicts returned to prison get sentences for technical parole violations is urgently needed. The Phillip Garrido case is an example of how increased case monitoring on the most serious offenders could have benefits for public safety. But it does not totally stand in for full reform. The sentencing commission goes hand-in-hand with fixing parole.
Sentencing commission: In other states, a sentencing commission looks at who is being sent to prison and for how long, and what sentences work best to lower reoffense rates. Sentences are based on the severity of the crime and the offender's prior record. Instead of a system driven by relatively low-level property and drug offenses, prison sentences are focused primarily on violent and career offenders. The result in other states is that fewer offenders go to state prison, but the offenders who do go to prison are serving longer. For lesser crimes, offenders go to county jail.
Skelton only touches on who's really to blame for our intransigence on prison reform - those allegedly fiscally responsible Republicans who refuse to bear the costs of their policy desires. They've joined the appeal of the federal judge order to reduce the population by 44,000 on the grounds that their beautiful minds tell them there's no problem in the system:
State Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster) said the judges had ignored the state’s recent “huge investment” in spending on inmate healthcare, as well as statistics showing that California spends more on healthcare per prisoner, and has a lower mortality rate among them, than many other states.
“We believe there is constitutional care today,” he said. “We believe there always has been.”
If you want the long form of this lie, read Tom Harman. Either way, it's just not true. Inmates have died, around one a week, before a federal receiver was instituted. Republicans fought the implementation of investing in prison health care, and the continued presence of infirm prisoners based on draconian sentencing laws like three strikes can account for the increased costs. Republicans typically call for increased rehabilitation and treatment for offenders while cutting the funding. It's a shell game.
However, we are well beyond that at this point. We have a bill that needs only a majority vote. And Assembly Democrats are petrified of justifying votes they had no problem with as recently as 2007. By the way, opponents can go back to those votes too, and make the same mailers. You either can act like you have the courage of your convictions, or not. Ultimately, the people will pay the price.