Doing Hard Time


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Doing hard time
As Legislature mulls prison reforms, the larger question – whether putting more people in jail reduces crime – goes begging

Sr. editorial writer



Two years ago, confronted by a prison system that had clearly become dysfunctional, Gov. Schwarzenegger declared himself a prison reformer, vowing a new emphasis on rehabilitation and a thoroughgoing program of "blowing up the boxes." In February 2004 a 40-member independent panel headed by former Gov. George Deukmejian issued a report with over 200 recommendations to overhaul the system. It focused on a "code of silence" that protects abusive guards and other prison workers and decried the undue influence of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guards union.

Since then a federal judge, citing extreme problems in medical care for prisoners, has actually taken over operation of medical care in California prisons and appointed a special master to run the system and impose reforms. The special master, Robert Sillen, has issued several scathing reports, and a state controller's audit this month confirmed massive wasteful spending and abuse in the prison health care system.

This month the reform agenda, in the shape of a special session on prison reform called by the governor, has been reduced to the lowest common denominator. It consists essentially of five bills:

•Assembly Bill 1 would authorize the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to contract for 4,500 beds for nonserious/nonviolent female offenders in places where they could be closer to their families. 

•AB2 would authorize 15,000 new beds at existing prisons. The hope is that these could be added more quickly and at less cost than would be involved in building new prisons.

•AB4 would authorize the building of two new prison facilities. One would be a "reentry" facility where people convicted of certain nonviolent crimes whose sentences are almost up could get counseling, drug treatment and other services designed to help them function as law-abiding people once they return to society at large. The other would be a medical facility where prisoners with long-term health problems and mental health problems could be isolated from the rest of the prison population and receive some treatment.

•AB5 would authorize a new training center in Southern California for parole and probation officers.

•AB6 would authorize the use of the design-build method, generally believed to be relatively cost-effective compared with going with separate bids for designing and building.

All this is not nothing. Orange Republican Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, a former police officer with a tough-on-crime reputation, told me he sees "an unusual opportunity for all sides in this debate to get things they want by working together." Republicans will get the additional prison beds they want, which will mean additional prison capacity, which would reduce the perceived need for early release of some prisoners, some of whom might well be dangerous. Liberals will get the additional treatment and counseling capacity they believe can make rehabilitation something more than a hollow promise and open the way to alternatives to hard prison time for some nonviolent crimes.

A hopeful prelude to the session came Monday, when the Assembly passed, by a 63-1 vote, a bill to improve media access to prisoners. The issue has been a live one since the early 1990s when Department of Corrections officials severely limited such access by, for example, requiring reporters to write to individual prisoners to ask them to place the reporters on their authorized-visitor list along with friends and family, and forbidding reporters who do get interviews from having pencils, notebooks or recording devices in interview rooms.

The policy was billed as a response to the phenomenon of some criminals achieving celebrity status through media interviews, thus capitalizing on their crimes in a distasteful or even sick manner. But it also severely limited the ability of the media to gain access in ways that might expose abuses in the prison system itself. Bills to liberalize the policy have been vetoed in turn by Govs. Wilson, Davis and Schwarzenegger. But this one might get through.

In part, it's because Republicans like Spitzer have come to see the prison system as more dysfunctional than they had thought and to see the media as one of the few vehicles for exposing abuse. Spitzer's moment of revelation came after a Channel 2 reporter exposed a CDCRpractice of moving released sex offenders around every three days to get around a policy requiring public notification of where released sex offenders are living within five days of their arrival.

One of the CDCR's communications experts (since transferred out) then issued an internal memo outlining plans to keep this story from getting more attention. He specifically mentioned the importance of keeping the information from Spitzer and other legislators who might be upset and make a stink.

"Here I was thinking I was a constructive force, trying to help the CDC get its act together from a position of sympathetic friendliness," he told me. "I'm now convinced that the media offer the only way to make the CDC somewhat accountable."

All this is helpful, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem, which is that over the last few decades American society in general, and California in particular, have instituted polices that put many more people in prison for longer periods of time than we did before. The number of people incarcerated in the United States has increased fivefold since 1970. The crime rate has fluctuated up and down during those 30-odd years, but in 2001 it was almost exactly what it was in 1971.

Increasing the incarceration rate as radically as we have has inevitably led to friction; prisons and prison populations have grown faster than the system was prepared to handle them. The result has been overcrowding, which puts stress on both prisoners and guards. Stress leads to increased incidences of violence and abuse, against prisoners by other prisoners, against guards by prisoners, and against prisoners by guards. Building a few more prisons and specialized facilities might alleviate some of these problems, but it cannot solve them all.

The larger issue is whether putting more people in prison really reduces crime. From 1980 to 2006, according to a study just released by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, while California's adult incarceration rate increased five-fold (from 137 per 100,000 residents to 682), the adult violent-crime rate actually increased by 11 percent. Meanwhile. incarceration of juveniles actually decreased (from 170 per 100,000 in 1980 to 91 in 2004), and juvenile crime also decreased.

The United States incarcerates more people as a proportion of the general population than any other industrial democracy. The U.S. rate is 738 per 100,000 general population. Canada's incarceration rate is 98, Italy's is around 86, France's is 90, Germany's 90 and Australia's 100. Yet property crime rates are roughly similar in all these countries, and more violent crime occurs in the U.S. than in most of the other countries. Could it be that there is no correlation – zero – between putting people in prison for longer periods and crime rates? That's the question nobody really wants to consider.

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