Roundtable: Marine on Facebook, Pension Argument, Prisons Reallign
March 23, 2012 12:52 p.m.
Guests: Tony Perry, SD Bureau Chief, LA Times
Alison St. John, KPBS News
Dana Littlefield, U-T San Diego
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition Roundtable. Today on the Roundtable, we'll be talking about San Diego's top stories of the week and inviting you to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. We're joined by KPBS senior news editor, Mark Sauer to talk about a sports story that broke yesterday afternoon. Jeff Murad is stepping down at CEO of the San Diego Padres. Tell us what's going on.
SAUER: The team announced that Padres president and CEO Tim Garfinkel will take over as CEO now so Murad can focus on airing a lucrative TV deal to games locally.
CAVANAUGH: Is the sale of the team not happening now?
SAUER: Not now. Murad was a co-owner of the diamondbacks a few years ago. They own 49% of the team now. And they were supposed to take full ownership this spring. It appears too many team owners don't want it to happen, at least for now. The thing to remember is the dodgers franchise are a mess after the parking lot magnet who bought them ran them into the ground because of mismanagement, and mostly because they lack sufficient funds to play at this himself. It could be that baseball owners and 3/4 of them have to approve a sale. They think Murad's pockets are too shallow.
CAVANAUGH: What does that mean for fans?
SAUER: The team will continue to have one of baseball's lowest payrolls, one of two teams with a payroll of less than $60 million this year. By comparison half the teams have payrolls of at least $90 million. The Yankees lead the majors with a payroll of $195 million.
CAVANAUGH: And opening day is right around the corner.
SAUER: It sure is.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Mark.
CAVANAUGH: My guests are Alison St. John welcome.
ST. JOHN: Always glad to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Dana Littlefield covers Supreme Courts for UT San Diego. Welcome to the program.
LITTLEFIELD: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: And Tony Perry is here, San Diego bureau chief of the LA Times.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the Marine Corps has reportedly started the process of removing Camp Pendleton marine sergeant Gary Stein from the core. He started a Facebook page called armed forces tea party, and on that page he said he would refuse to obey an order from the president. If our listeners would like to join the conversation, you can give us a call. Tony, I just gave a synopsis of what Gary Stein -- what got him into trouble. Fill us in on the details.
PERRY: When you join the United States military, you put some of your first amendment rights in an escrow account as it were, not to be touched until you leave military service. Sergeant Stein, 26, a nine-year veteran, did a tour in Iraq, start started a website called armed forces tea party, on that he put certain comment, standard, tepid comments as they relate to the current political state of discourse in this nation. Doesn't like President Obama's health plan that was passed by the Congress, doesn't like President Obama. Thinks he ought to be replaced by a Republican. He takes issue with the administration's view that under certain circumstances, the commander in chief can order the military to strike at an American citizen who's gone over to Al-Qaeda or some other group like that. And also he threw in a comment about how he would not help in the disarming of American citizens. I'm not sure how that relates to any federal move. But pretty tepid stuff by political standards. But it got him in trouble with his bosses. And indeed the Marine Corps disavowed him and said that none of the -- his standards -- none of his comments reflect the Marine Corps. And now they've begun an administrative procedure, not a criminal procedure, not heavy enough to merit that. But an administrative procedure that likely will make a demotion from sergeant to corporal, and probably end his military service somewhat short of his July date in which his enlistment was to end. He'd like to reenlist. I don't think that's going to happen.
CAVANAUGH: You and I, Tony, we could go on Facebook and post comments like that. We wouldn't necessarily lose our jobs, right?
PERRY: Well, not necessarily. If I was to leave KPBS, go out to the quad and start balling out a political message, and identifying myself as a reporter for the LA Times, and I was for this candidate or this candidate, this proposition or that proposition, I would probably face some sort of censure from my bosses and some sort of implication that my long-term employment wasn't being enhanced. So we all have to curb our to thinks as it relates to political statements relating to our bosses. That's just the way it is. Military service is even more extreme than private employment, of course, given its nature, and it's part of the uniform code of military justice, thou shall not criticize the commander in chief or the command structure, and you shall not engage in political activity that seems to imply you're doing so as a uniformed member of the U.S. military. And his bosses believe that sergeant Stein did both of those things, and for that reason, an administrative procedure is underway.
ST. JOHN: Well, the thing is he's --
CAVANAUGH: Sorry, go ahead. Allison.
ST. JOHN: He is pleading his constitutional right to free speech. And I understand the ACLU did help in to support him in 2010. What's different now?
PERRY: In 2010, they did jump in. And I talked to David Lloyd, the legal director of the ACLU San Diego branch. They sent a letter to his commander two years ago saying he does have right, even though he's in the U.S. military. At that point the sergeant pulled back some of his comments and took them off the Facebook. Now it seems to have reheated. I talked to David Lloyd and it does not look like they're getting involved this time. They buy into the idea that the military has a certain right to curb the speech of its members when that speech seems to being made in their role as uniformed members in the active duty, and seems to be aimed at their commander in chief. This doesn't look like a case where they're going to leap in. And as I say, the comments that sergeant Stein has made are pretty tepid kinds of comments. There's an army Lt. Colonel running around getting a lot of -- New York Times, Washington post, he was on the news hour, and he's saying that the commanders in Afghanistan are lying to the American public about how badly things are going there. There's a lot more brass on that, rather than just signing onto some tepid tea party kinds of statements. But sergeant Stein has done what he's done, and now he'll pay the price for it.
CAVANAUGH: We have a call from bob in Poway. Welcome to the show.
NEW SPEAKER: I'm a former marine, I was a sergeant, I was in Vietnam. And I think this guy is on thin ice. Usually when you join the service, you are told it's part of your contract that you are to obey the command of all those appointed above you. That's part of your oath every time you reenlist. This man is obviously flaunting those laws, flaunting that oath. He was not in a position where he was drafted in service, that's gone because everybody is a volunteer now. He should have known when he walked in that he didn't have to right. To go out and do it, I think he's way out in left field.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call. Let me go to frank from El Cajon. Welcome to the program.
NEW SPEAKER: I understand the good sergeant's objection to collective approach to medical care. So he can help the rest of us out by resigning. That way my taxes will not be used to fund his current medical care and dental care that we provide him and his dependents.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Two people basically saying he doesn't have this privilege to disrespect the president and he should just get out of the Marines and become a regular citizen so he can basically say what he wants to say.
PERRY: Well, his view as expressed on certain Facebook postings is that the republic is in peril these days, and the constitution is under attack. That's basic tea party rhetoric. He believes in it. He believes he has a -- both a need and a right to stand out and say me too! I believe we're in peril! I believe the constitution gives me this right, and I believe the constitution is being shredded. He's got a quote from Ronald Regan to that effect at the top of one posting saying you've got to protect the constitution. So he's working off his conscience as he sees it. And signing onto these certain comments. And he may pay a price as people who stand out on conscience often do.
ST. JOHN: The caller was talking about his opposition to healthcare. And what I guess I'm wondering is what is the specific thing that has led to the fact that the marines have said enough? Now we're going to -- because if it's to do with criticizing the commander in chief, then I think it's important for everybody to stand back and say it doesn't matter which political party you belong to. Supposing a member of the Marine Corps was criticizing George bush. It's just the idea of criticizing the commander in chief of the very military that you're a part of.
CAVANAUGH: One of the comments though.
PERRY: He made -- oh, I'm sorry.
CAVANAUGH: One of the comments that took it over the top was that he would not obey an order from the president. Whether there's a lawful order or just any order, it's a little squishy there. But I don't -- that seems to me from the reading that I've done on this case, it seems to have pushed the Marine Corps to take an action.
PERRY: It does. Now, he had said on another posting he wouldn't obey an unlawful order. He seems to be defining those unlawful orders differently than the administration does on this issue of attacking Americans who have gone over to the enemy. You're right. It's a thin kind of line that's being drawn between lawful and unlawful. When is he within, just barely within the standards of what's permissible, and when is it over? It's not a real Egregious case. He hasn't stood on the steps of the capitol and denounced our American foreign policy. Nor has he gone on TV and said the main commanders are not telling the truth. It's pretty tepid stuff. But they've begun this procedure, and I think it will end with him leaving the United States Marine Corps somewhat shy of that July date in which his second enlistment was to be up.
CAVANAUGH: We have a blog at NPR home post, and the response from the mostly military people, many military people who read that blog, has been very supportive of sergeant Stein. And on the blog, if you look at the responses, there is an apparent lack of understanding about what the military needs to be politically neutral. And I'm wondering if that's surprising, or do you find that widespread?
PERRY: It may be widespread. You need only look to the long history of military services in Europe, for example, where they were very tied to certain political viewpoints and certain political parties. We have always prided ourselves here on having a nonpolitical military. And there's always been some agitation about that, and some awfully good movies written, seven-days in May, for example that debate that. But you're right, the essence of the U.S. military is it is nonpolitical, but yet is under the command of political figures. So there is a kind of six of one, half dozen of another. There is a bit of a conflict there. But you put certain of your first amendment rights, not all of them, but certain of them you put in escrow when you put that uniform on. When you leave service, you get those rights back, and they have gained some interest. Because then you can stand up and say I served this country and I believe blah blah blah. But while you have the uniform on, there are rather strong restrictions on what and where, what and where you can say certain things. You want to gripe in your tent to the other guys? Fine.
ST. JOHN: That's right.
PERRY: You want to go to a bar room in Vista and talk to retired marines and say blah blah blah? Fine.
ST. JOHN: And we know of a January who spoke to a reporter and it was no longer fine.
PERRY: Indeed. But the web lives forever.
ST. JOHN: Right.
PERRY: And it gets everywhere. And Mr. Stein, sergeant Stein, started a website and said some things, and I think he's going to pay the price for it.
ST. JOHN: Yeah. In my job I talk a lot to veterans, and you find that there are a lot of veterans who feel they have a lot of questions and criticisms about the very actions they were participating in. But they waited until they left the military to say it. So to be an active part of the military and then putting something out on the web that's critical, that seems to be -- there's a certain discipline, isn't there? About being in the military. Which I think engenders some respect from me as well.
PERRY: Indeed. And why are these comments considered out of bounds? Because they are in the words of the uniformed code of military justice, they are prejudicial to good order and discipline.
PERRY: Let's take it back to first cases. Military service is different than all other kinds of employment. You can be ordered to go from point A to point B knowing there's a good chance you're going to die, but you have no right to say no, I'd rather not go. We have that right when we work for KPBS or the Union Tribune if our employers want to send us somewhere where we're going to get shot. You do not have that right in the military service. So you need something called good order and discipline, so some day when you have to send large numbers of men and women knowing they have a good chance of getting killed, they will do so.
CAVANAUGH: Jeff is on the line from La Mesa. Welcome to the show.
NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to say, he keeps saying this is tepid stuff. And it's not. He said he would not obey a lawful order from the commander in chief. That's not tepid at all. And also you're talking about the military's political, Rush Limbaugh on armed service radio, that's pretty political. So this guy wasn't being tepid at all. He was saying in a public forum that he wouldn't obey an order from the commander and chief. I can't see how you keep saying tepid over and over again.
CAVANAUGH: It kind of shocked me too.
PERRY: The only comment I say that says I will not obey an unlawful not. Not obeying an lawful order is right there in the things you don't have to do. And if you do obey an unlawful order and go to a court martial, it's not a defense to say I was just following an order because the rejoinder is it's unlawful, and you did not have to follow it, and you should not have to follow it. So I did not see this comment that I won't follow an order.
CAVANAUGH: It is a difference in understanding, however, between not liking Obama care and therefore not following an order that the president gives you, and the Nuremburg trials. There's a rather large difference there.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition Roundtable. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests at the Roundtable are KPBS senior metro reporter, Alison St. John. Dana Littlefield who covers Supreme Courts for UT San Diego. And Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief with the LA Times. The City of San Diego's independent budget analyst released an evaluation of the pension reform measure that's coming up on the June ballot. The figures released support what critics have been saying for months now. The switch from offering city workers guaranteed pensions to 401K plans won't really save the city any money. The question is will that matter to voters? We invite our listeners to join the conversation. We're going to go through all this, Allison, and I don't mean to imply that the comprehensive pension reform initiative has been deemed not to save any money at all. But is it fair to call the switch from designated pensions to 401Ks the core of this pension reform measure?
ST. JOHN: Well, Maureen, I think that's right. When you look at the whole pension controversy that is raging around the country, people are talking about the fact that public employees have guaranteed pensions, whereas most of the rest of us in the private sector are forced to rely on 401Ks that are at the mercy of the market. So that is the key fulcrum upon which pension reform turns in most people's minds. They would like to see public employees have the same kind of pensions. Somebody called it the politics of resentment. I think David Rowlands of CityBeat did. And I think that's accurate. People would rather not see public employees getting a better pension than they are. That is where Carl DeMaio is appealing to voters, saying we are going to perform pensions and give all the public employees the same kind of pension as yours, a 401K, we're going to get rid of these guaranteed pensions that's costing the taxpayers so much. And there in lies the surprising results that is turns out that is not going to save the city money in the near term. It's something else.
CAVANAUGH: What did the independent analyst say the switch would do for the city's finances?
ST. JOHN: Well, when you add up the switch, it's actually going to cost the city $13 million. Which is peanut, really. However it does turn out that over the first two or three year, it's going to cost the city more because when you change your pension plan, you then have to pay off the unfunded liability of the one that you're closing out faster. So we all have heard these tremendously high figures, millions of dollars that the city is paying to try to pay down its unfunded pension liability. That figure is going to go up in the first few years till 2016. So it isn't going to save the city any money in the short-term, and in the long-term, it's going to cost $13†million. They come from the idea of freezing pensionable pay so nobody could award public employees a salary increase if it was going to increase their pension. Upon they could award increases that would be outside of that baseline pay on which the pension is based. But it's a freeze of pensionable pay.
CAVANAUGH: How much will that save?
ST. JOHN: Over $900†million over 30 years.
CAVANAUGH: But another thing that came to our attention this week is that within the comprehensive pension reform initiative, is there any guarantee that if people vote for this initiative, that the only real money saving measure in it that that pensionable pay freeze will actually happen?
ST. JOHN: Right. And there in lies the second rub. It turns out that just saying that, voting for it in an initiative, isn't legally binding. Even the city attorney came out with a statement to say that the passage of this doesn't automatically guarantee that employees' base compensation would be frozen for five years. All it does, it sets the city's initial bargaining position in laborer negotiations. It still has to go back to laborer negotiations, and still could go before the City Council. . And the City Council could died to ignore that. So basically that is setting a sort of we would like a freeze, but it could not be legally binding.
CAVANAUGH: Tony, you've been making noises there.
[ LAUGHTER ]
PERRY: The thing I find extraordinary about this is that it does show us once again how different public employment is than the private sector, the private sector where the boss, owners, reps go into a room and make announcement, and things happen. Pensions are ended, salaries are cut, people are laid off. It is almost as if in public employment, it's a perpetual motion machine that literally can't be stopped once it's rolling down the road, which it has been rolling down the road with pension spiking and cashing out your sick leave and your vacation --
ST. JOHN: I think it's worth making the point that -- DeMaio makes the point that he doesn't believe the IBA's includes things like pension spiking. Of the labor unions though have pointed those things out. So the idea that somebody would get a big pay raise for a year and then immediately get a huge pension spike, that has already been negotiated out. So where you have Egregious, I think the term another bite of the apple was used a lot in the debate, people trying to take another bite of the apple, a lot of those abuses I think have been negotiated out of the system already.
PERRY: If you listen to Carl DeMaio, and I went to one of his press conferences recently, it's almost -- and he's the pension hawk. He is the pension hawk in San Diego. Has a much more severe view than even the mayor. The mayor at his heart is a city employee, 25 years with the department. He wants to trim things to keep the budget in synch with how much money we have. Carl has a philosophical view that those folks working for the city ought not to be there treated any better than the rest of us in the private sector. But it does seem that even Carl, it took him years to find out where all the little bells and whistles were hidden that would spike up people's pensions and their salaries.
ST. JOHN: Well, it's not like he's just discovering it now and putting it in the initiative. These have been the subject of controversy for years.
PERRY: That's my point. It's taken him years to find these things. And I remember the press conference, one of the things he said was some of the departments would have one job that they would pass around to someone who was within a year of retirement so that then --
ST. JOHN: I think everyone would agree that those kinds of things was part of a culture that had to be stopped. And all the changes that have happened at the city as a result of the pension crisis have focused on that kind of thing. Stamping out those kind of abuses.
PERRY: I find it amazing that private employers can go in a room and come out and announce overnight, take years and years and years on the public sector, and may yet not be able to be accomplished.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let me take a phone call here. Andrew is calling from Ocean Beach. Welcome to the program.
NEW SPEAKER: Just wanted to throw my $0.02 in. I'm kind of curious, because I'm actually an electrician, and I sure would love to work for the county or city or something like that. And to get into those job, it's really tough. You got to jump through a lot of hoops. And it almost is the stepping stone to be in politics. You got to know somebody, rub the elbows with the right people. And that distrust with politicians I think is kind of slipping over into the county jobs because people are, like, hey, what's going on there? Why do they got such a great deal?
ST. JOHN: Good point, yeah. I think you're raising a very good point. Why do they have such a good deal? And what is the answer to that question? Labor negotiations. Unions.
PERRY: And political power. Both on the local and state.
ST. JOHN: That have allowed --
PERRY: And good lawyers.
ST. JOHN: Uh-huh. When you look at what happened with the pension crisis, are the City Council had to agree to what the unions were proposing. So the political power was a part of it, you're quite right. When you look at whether unions should be the ones taking the rap for this, be the big question in my mind is, when unions have gotten a good deal for the average person, what was our caller?
ST. JOHN: Electrician, they got good wages and benefits for electricians, why is it that we're so angry, even the electricians are angry, at the unions? Shouldn't it be more that you would want those good wages and benefits wherever you're working rather than undermining the system that has been worked up by the unions over the years for your average working man?
CAVANAUGH: The critics of this plan, of the initiative, have been saying the same thing as the independent budget analyst now confirmed, that basically this pension reform move, the major core of it, the switch, doesn't actually save the city any money. It's an ideological effort to break the backs of unions. And I wonder if you feel, if anyone at this table feels that's a fair criticism.
PERRY: Well, it's certainly an attempt at that. I mean that's the long-term goal is to decrease the bargaining power. And we've seen that across the nation where legislatures and governors are trying to break what they see as a stranglehold of labor unions over the legislative process. In California, it's going to be difficult. People have rights that they won through the state legislature, rights that they won through collective bargaining, they have awfully good lawyers, there's a whole culture of protecting public employees that there isn't with private sector employees. It's going to be much tougher than we thought. And we thought it was tough, and it's not over. And I know that the Sanders administration wants to sort of -- you know, in roller derby terms, all over the jam. The points have been scored. Well, some have, and the budget is more under control than it's been, but there's a lot of hard fighting on all this, particularly with our culture, our pinch-penny culture where we don't want to pay for things in San Diego. And the question is going to be for voters, which of these four candidates that we are looking at for mayor, which one do you think is up to it?
CAVANAUGH: There you go. That's what I was going to ask. I'm wondering how this new information, Allison, how do you think it's going to affect the San Diego mayor's race?
ST. JOHN: The three candidates who support the initiative continue to support it. Upon they are emphasizing the elements of this analysis which say that the city will save money over the long-term. The one who opposes it, Bob Filner, is calling it a fraud and saying this report here from the independent budget analyst, and I should add it's not just her report of the it was based on ki-Ron, the pension systems actuary. Filner is saying that he thinks it won't save the city a nickel. And he is saying that there are ways of achieving bigger savings by other means. Political means and negotiation. So I think that it is a difficult situation to the voter to really grasp, who do you sense has the right end of the stick here? Because everybody agrees that the city has to reduce its costs. So it's just a bit disappointing, I think, for the average voter to find that actually shifting to a 401K plan is not going to save the city any money. If you believe that, which is right here in the analysis, then you have to look at, well, what other alternatives could you take? And according to Filner, there are other alternatives.
PERRY: Well, he wants to float bonds. Pension bonds.
>> And look who did that. Of the county of San Diego did that long ago. And that is why they're sitting pretty, looking like they're fiscally sound.
PERRY: But some other folks have done that too and rued the day. There isn't even a difficult out. There's just degrees of really, really, really painful difficult outs on this.
CAVANAUGH: Doug is calling from Mission Beach. Welcome to the program.
NEW SPEAKER: Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to make a point that it doesn't seem to come up, you said over and over again it doesn't save anything, but that's based on some assumptions. But there's a simple fact here as I understand it, right now the city is taking the risk of having to pay certain specific pensions, whereas you folks in the private sector fully know that you are exposed to risk on what kind of pension you're going to find. Well, risk is a value. There's a cost to bearing the risk. A huge cost. And if the city shifts that risk to their employees, they are saving something that is actually of true value. And I don't understand why that wasn't highlighted in this discussion.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. And actually the vice president of the San Diego taxpayers earlier this week made that exact point. If we can't tell it in dollars and cents, which this has been sold to us as something that we could tell in dollars and cents, but even if we can't come up with the numbers of money saved by making the switch, what we're actually saving is bearing the risk of having to pay out pensions no matter what happens, no matter what silly mistakes or perhaps future city leaders make or whatever the stock market does.
ST. JOHN: The thing about that is, yes, are the core of this whole idea is to shift the risk to the city employee. This analysis doesn't even take into account putting the city employees -- Social Security. Even people in the private Stewart have at least that element of security. Everything is up in the air.
PERRY: Or are required to pay into the system. And take a risk that the system is there when they need it.
ST. JOHN: I agree. And I think that part of the reforms has to be that people start paying into their own pension plans and taking responsibility for it in a way that the public employees haven't up till now.
PERRY: It's just amazing that we've been at this so long but seem to have so far yet to go. It's almost as if the first years in which it was brought up as an issue, almost a decade ago, we almost -- I think we lost those years because it was all ideological driven by the editorial page of the San Diego paper when it was owned by other folks, they saw it as an ideological fight. We had lawsuits, criminal charges against the pension board that went nowhere, nowhere, and we are now paying $5.4†million in legal fees for people who were charged and never even taken to trial. So we lost a lot of years spinning our wheels over ideology, over lawsuits, so while we've been at it a whole bunch of years and may be ahead of other folks, we still apparently have a long way to go.
ST. JOHN: That is a good point. A lot of people are looking at this. No other city, certainly in this region is proposing to take that dramatic step of moving everybody, new hires, onto a 401K plan. I wanted to quickly go back. I said something about how public employees have not been paying toward their plans. And I think they have, it's just they negotiated those payments down. But to be fair, if you're shifting the risk, you should give those public employees at least the amount of security that everybody in the private sector has, which is social security. And that's not part of this plan.
CAVANAUGH: One last quick question, no matter what this independent budget analysis says, San Diego voters have heard so much about pension problems for so long, is a pension reform measure basically sure to pass?
PERRY: Yes. As Allison said, the politics of resentment are enormous. And I understand that I ought to philosophically be in favor of anyone getting a good deal because maybe some of that will wash over to me. But I'm not sure that the fact that my neighbor has that BMW helps me out as I drive my 78 Plymouth to work. So it's going to pass.
ST. JOHN: I am afraid I'm not that sure. I think if people are really thinking about it and looking at this analysis, are it's going to raise a lot of questions. So perhaps what we need to do is wait for the mayoral candidates to really tackle this one and sort of help clarify it, tease apart all the different elements and help voters figure out whether they really do think it's in the best interests of the city.
CAVANAUGH: And Dana and I at this point just no comment.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Alison St. John Dana Littlefield, and Tony Perry. This week, the ACLU of California released a report on the first months of the state's new prison realignment policy. That policy keeps low-level nonviolent offenders in county jails instead of sending them to state prison. It also reassigns nonviolent state parolees to Probation Departments. It is called California at a cross roads. Dana, what areas did the ACLU look into?
LITTLEFIELD: Well, they took a direct look at 53 of the 58 counties. Basically it was the implementation plans that were available throughout the state. And they looked at how the money was being allotted, what the money was going to be used for, and how that plan that was kind of hoisted upon them by the governor, how that would be put to good use in their counties. Since they're stuck with it, how do we make it work? That's essentially the question.
CAVANAUGH: I think it would be wise just to take a step backward just to explain briefly why we're doing this in the first place.
LITTLEFIELD: Well, there are two reasons. Of the main one is money. Because of the major budget issues that our state has been having, are the governor looked at a way to basically reduce the prison population and put some of that responsibility on the various counties to save the money that's being spent, and some people believe not very effectively, at the state level. So the issue here was to help meet that budget gap. The other side of this has to do with overcrowding specifically. And I do believe that in the early documentation that was written about realignment, there was a statement in there saying that this didn't directly have to do with the problem of overcrowding in state prisons. But I think since then, everyone has come to acknowledge, oh, yes, indeed, it does have a lot to do with overcrowding. In fact as some of your listeners may know, there was a Supreme Court decision last year handed down last year which said that California prisons have to reduce their population by 33,000 inmates over the next couple of years.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. So the ACLU is looking into how counties around California are handling the new policy of keeping these low-level nonviolent offenders in county jails instead of sending them to state prisons. How is San Diego doing?
LITTLEFIELD: Well, I've asked that question many times over the last several months. And I'm getting a lot of question marks, a lot of we don't know, it's going well so far, but who knows what will happen down the road. I would think that those who are responsible for this plan are doing their best to make sure that the public remains safe, there is it a lot of uncertainty about how this will work out going forward. So what I've heard most recently is okay, so far so good. Upon whereas those people who are particularly on the probation side, those people who are paroled essentially from state prison who fit this category, people who are nonviolent, low-level offenders, when they are let out of prison and they return to San Diego County, I'm hearing that they're not -- that there's supervision. Whereas before they would be supervised by parole, they're being supervised by probation, which is a big change. I'm being told that that group in high numbers is not going right back into custody, that they are staying out on supervision, and there is a unit within the probation department that is specifically dedicated to supervising that population.
CAVANAUGH: How are we doing on jail space?
LITTLEFIELD: Well, I spoke with sheriff gore not that long ago. And actually it was about a month ago. And he mentioned that he was starting to implement an old provision that was already in place where he could save off some time for some inmates, jail inmates, and essentially let them out early. So there have been some early releases. My understanding after that conversation I had with the sheriff was that basically the male population was rising at a faster rate than perhaps previously expected. I do have some numbers now. I just checked this morning that the prison population now is just over five thousand. Of and the total population, which is set by the Courts, is definitely 5,600.
CAVANAUGH: So we're getting close.
LITTLEFIELD: Yes. But understand also that that number is fluid. So as people come in, people are going out. And that happens obviously daily.
PERRY: Any move to move folks who are in our local jails who are not citizens of this country back to their nation of origin? We live next door to another country, and any chance that we can move some of those folks back to their country of origin?
LITTLEFIELD: Well, yes, but not until their business, so to speak, has been handled here. If they have a criminal case, and they're awaiting trial, you've got to keep them here until that has been adjudicated. And that's something that the ACLU has looked at specifically in their report. They mentioned that there's a problem, that there is this entire population of people who are awaiting trial who are filling up the jails, essentially. And the thing that they point out in the document is that those people should have some opportunity for bail. There's something that's called an immigration hold. So a lot of times when someone who is not a citizen of this country is arraigned in superior court, an immigration hold is put on their case, and they are held in the county jail without the opportunity for jail. The ACLU is saying wait a minute, that's not necessarily the way to go. Those people as well as many others should be allowed some reasonable bail so that they can get out and perhaps have a better chance of defending their case.
PERRY: When we talk about nonviolent, are we really talking about drug offenders, low-level, a little bit of weed, a little bit of meth?
LITTLEFIELD: That's a lot of who we're talking about here. Low-level offenders, people with issues with drugs, with substance abuse, who find themselves in and out of custody for that particular reason. And the argument there, and it's not just coming from the ACLU, but this is an idea that I understand the ACLU supports, is that that particular population, and others like them, are not helped by going in and out of jail. And what the overarching philosophy of realignment is, aside from the fact that the jails are overcrowded, the prisons were overcrowded, are there is an idea that those people who fit in that category would be better served by the local services. So in that sense, realignment is kind of a good thing. Because instead of being sent to state prison where they'll get no services, no therapy, no drug intervention, here in the county, they would have better access, easier access to those kinds of things.
PERRY: Do we have space? Or is this a waiting list? If I'm a meth addict, and I do a little burglary to buy what I need, is there a program for me out there somewhere?
LITTLEFIELD: There are programs. I think the larger question is are there enough programs, and the answer that I've heard so far is no, that because this is such a large population, that the county will have to deal with very quickly, they need the power -- the powers that be here in San Diego County will absolutely need to expand those services immediately. And they are taking steps, moving toward that direction. And it's not an easy thing. It's not something that you can put together in a couple of weeks. And understand that this law went into place very, very quickly. It was announced in April, and day 1, to put this into practice, was October†1st.
ST. JOHN: Do you get a sense that the county is going to allocate dollars to it? I think everybody is praising the county because they're not spending a huge amount on trying to build more jail space, other than the women's jail, which badly needs it. But if in fact they're going to meet this goal of cutting recidivism, which is the main way of keeping people out of jail, you have to invest in the things that will keep people out of jail, which is the drug treatment, like Tony says, or housing even. When you come out of state prison, apparently a really high proportion of them have nowhere to live so they become homeless. How much do you get a sense the county is investing in these alternative things that will help keep people out of jail?
LITTLEFIELD: From what I understand, the county is asking the state to invest in it. After all, this is the state's idea. And so because this plan has been hoisted upon them, they want the money to come state to directly pull it off. So some money has already been allocated. San Diego County is supposed to get $25.1 million to help put this into place. The way that the county has handled that so far, and this is from the county's chief probation officer, he mentioned that of that $25 million, about $11†million has been allocated so far. And that would go to the jails, that would go to supervision, that would also go to treatment, which you mentioned, and it would also go to intervention, meaning drug treatment programs and that sort of thing.
PERRY: Anybody on our Board of Supervisors, any of those five good and true Republicans on our Board of Supervisors leading this charge? Any of them take on this rather unpopular issue of better services for offenders?
LITTLEFIELD: Not that I'm aware of. They've all expressed, especially on the day this plan was approved, very, very deep concerns that something could go wrong here. And that fear, that trepidation, is not going away.
CAVANAUGH: And yet the switch to alternatives is something that's being championed by the county DA and by Matt Jenkins with the county probation office. He was on the program earlier, and yes, we should get people out of jail who are just in there because they're awaiting trials. And my question is, unfortunately, we don't have a lot of time left, it seems that there might be a switch going on. California has been a lock them up and throw away the key kind of a state for a while. And now we have this happening with alternative programs for offenders. And we also have a ballot measure coming up in Nov. That would eliminate the death penalty. So we have about a minute to talk about it. But do you think that this is a fundamental change in the way we're approaching criminal justice?
ST. JOHN: Yeah, I think so.
LITTLEFIELD: Oh, absolutely. It's been described since it was first proposed as the biggest change to public safety in California over the past 25-30 years. It's definitely a huge deal. Not only for the jails but for probation and the Courts as well.
ST. JOHN: And the interesting thing is, three strikes and you're out is partly responsible for filling up the prisons. But the reason people are changing their attitudes is because they're seeing it's costing the taxpayer!
PERRY: Those of us with longer memories remember when the state decided to get out of the mental hospital business and send it back to the locals without enough money. Take a look at downtown San Diego. See what you think about how well that effort worked.
CAVANAUGH: We have to end it there. Thank you all very much.
ST. JOHN: Thank you.