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Calif. Ordered to Reduce State Prison Population

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Aired 8/7/09

A panel of federal judges has ordered the state to reduce its prison inmate population by 40,000. The judges scolded the state for not complying with previous orders to fix the prison health care system, and reduce overcrowding.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Okay, let’s have a big shift of topics. At least it feels big to me at this moment. This week,

a panel of three federal judges ordered California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 prisoners in the next two years. That’s about 25% of all state inmates. Now, Chris, this seems like a huge number and a huge decision. What prompted the ruling?

CHRIS REED (Editorial Writer, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, for decades California prisons have been overcrowded. They’re nearly double capacity. And for years federal judges have been riding herd on California, ordering improvements. And California has been basically quite sluggish. It’s come to a head in recent years because of all the problems with inmate healthcare and has led Judge Thelton Henderson, who is part of this panel, and other judges, to tell the state they’ve got to get their act in gear. But between the typical Sacramento inertia and the fact that the state has been hurting for money in the last couple of years, very, very little has gotten done. Meanwhile, the public keeps making the problem worse by voting for initiatives that ship more and more people off to jail. The Republicans in the legislature continue to balk at measures that would make California more like other states in how it treats people. And hanging above it all is three strikes, which just shoves people away for long periods even when many of them are no longer risks to society in general. So it’s just a – it’s a, to use the dumb cliché, it’s a perfect storm of things and it’s going to come to a head because I really doubt very much that their appeal to the Supreme Court to throw this out, the pending appeal from Jerry Brown, is going to work. And so California’s going to finally have to make some profound decisions about how it incarcerates people and why it warehouses so many people for so many years after there are still threats.

PENNER: Well, let me see, yesterday, just fortuitously, I listened to a speech by the – I think he’s the Deputy Attorney General for the State of California, positioned here in San Diego. He’s been here for 33 years. And he noted that the crime rate has dropped considerably in California and he attributes that to the fact that we put these prisoners away and we throw away the key. That – that’s – that was his feeling. He said it exactly, and we throw away the key. And he believes in three strikes. And he’s been a Deputy Attorney General for 33 years.

REED: Many, many, many states have seen the crime rate drop by the exact same percentage. The crime dropping is a phenomenon that’s been studied by many people and the more criminologists than not agree that it has to do with the age of society. Our society is aging, therefore there are less criminals. And the idea that three strikes is such a godsend, well then how come New York, which is going the opposite way, which is pushing prisoners out faster, has had even sharper declines in crime? It’s just simpleminded and wrong to say three strikes is the reason for the decline in crime rate.

PENNER: Okay, our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. What concern do you have that California may be forced to release 40,000 inmates within the next two years? That’s 40,000 prisoners from state prisons. Our number, again, 1-888-895-5727. Where would they go, Kent?

KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): Well, they’re going to come back home. San Diego County, I think, gets – would be slotted to get something like close to 2,000 people, inmates, back into its community. And I think the real concern is that there are very little provisions for what to do with these people as they reenter, and I think there is a legitimate concern since the socialization of process of going to prison means that you have to gang up. That is, you have to pick a gang affiliation. It is clear that the street gangs in general are run out of the California prisons, that you are basically sending people back into the communities with little resources around them except to go back to gang affiliations. I’m quite concerned that it won’t be quite as sanguine as simply letting people back – back out to come home.

PENNER: So when they’re let out, they’re let out free?


PENNER: Or do they go into jails or what?

DAVY: …no. Well, under California’s current system they would come out onto parole – into some sort of parole system. However, that’s part of the problem in California. In California, you’ve got – you send back about half of your inmates every year within about 60 to 90 days on minor technical parole violations and they’re back to prison.

PENNER: Recidivism.

DAVY: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: Yes. Kent, if we go to the basics of all this, better education – Did I say Kent? I meant David.

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Yeah.

PENNER: Better education, better job opportunities, control of illegal drugs, domestic violence reduction, alcoholism treatment, if we were to put our money in the front end, might we see that it would benefit us in terms of reducing the prison population?

ROLLAND: Well, you’re certainly singing my song on, you know, spending money up front in order to gain long term benefit. Yeah, that’s been the problem. I mean, Chris is absolutely right in everything he says about the way we have come to our decisions in criminal justice. They are ruled by emotion, they’re ruled by our sense of vengeance and justice against criminals but they are not – these decisions are not ruled by our brains. I mean, we – it’s completely unsustainable, you know, how we have built this system. Now, to get to your point, the Corrections Department is now called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and that last word is an absolute misnomer. There is very little rehabilitation going on and now the Republicans are talking about cutting it – really gutting what little there is. These people come out and they have no prospects, they have – they have simply learned to become more – worse criminals than they were when they got in, many on, you know, fairly minor non-violent offenses. They come out and they have no prospects for getting a job. You know, they have nothing. And so – really, and that’s what contributes to the recidivism rate.

PENNER: All right. I know that Chris wants to respond and I also want to hear from Tony in Miramar but you know what we’re going to do? Oh, yeah, we have time. We can take that. Chris, before you respond, let’s hear what Tony in Miramar has to say. Tony, you’re on with the editors.

TONY (Caller, Miramar): Oh, hi. Thank you very much for taking my call.


TONY: I just wanted to make a little statement that when you speak about releasing these prisoners is that, you know, the judicial system looks at it – looks at it and they say, okay, who are the least violent prisoners that we’re going to, you know, put up for parole. And they’re usually very nonviolent. It’s like usually drug offenders, things like that, so that’s something to really consider. I’m thinking, yes, let’s do that because it’ll take the burden off the taxpayers and, you know, we can get these people some help in some other ways so…

PENNER: Okay, thank you, Tony. And Chris wants to respond to you, too, so I’m going to hold off until after the break and then, Chris, you get a chance at Tony and at David. Again, this is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

# # #

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. We’re talking about the potential release of 40,000 prisoners in the State of California, going back to their communities. And with me at the roundtable are David Rolland from San Diego CityBeat, Kent Davy from North County Times, and Chris Reed from the San Diego Union-Tribune. And it’s Chris’ turn. Chris.

REED: Well, just to respond to the caller and to David, you know, we need risk management to guide our decisions on prison, not vengeance. Crime is a young man’s game. Google the word ‘age and crime’ and the first thing you get is the study by the Pennsylvania State Criminologist, who’s the world’s leading expert, and he says there is no fact more established in criminology than the link between age and crime. Except for sexual offenders, except for con men, age declines – when you get older, you become far less likely to commit crimes, so the concern about gang members, people coming back into gangs, well don’t release young folks. There’s no 47-year – there’s very few 47-year-old gangbangers. Now the law of diminishing returns is completely well understood throughout the normal business world, that when you keep doing things at some point there’s a diminishing return. We have set up a legal system under which we punish people and there’s diminishing returns in the amount of public safety. As stupid and radical as it sounds, if you simply released everybody when they turned 45, except for a few tiny handful of categories, you would see a – arguably, a small increase in crime and a huge, huge savings. But we do not allow risk management concepts to dictate how we lock people up. Instead, we warehouse non-threats. California has 22,000 inmates who are 65 years and older. Their average care costs $140,000 a year. The idea that these people are public threats that need to be warehoused is absurd. But then, you know, where are we going – what can we do? We have a public that just wants to lock up ever more people. You know, this reminds me, in a strange way, of the 1960s, if it feels good, do it. That is our prison policy. If it feels good, do it. Let’s just lock up these people for ever and ever and who cares about the costs.

PENNER: So they’re not all – over 65 you said, they’re not all Bernie Madoffs.

REED: Well, I – I don’t really think Bernie Madoff is a public threat.

PENNER: Well, speak to those people who lost their…

REED: Well, no, I – No, I understand.

PENNER: …their life savings.

REED: I understand, but that’s – that’s kind of an extreme example.

ROLLAND: Well, he’s going to be in federal prison anyway.

REED: Yeah, and the better example is the guy who’s an auto thief who’s 48 years old and he’s got, you know, he’s got seven more years on his three strikes thing. It’s absurd. Crime is a young man’s game.

DAVY: No, he has a lifetime on his three strikes.

REED: You’re right.

PENNER: Okay. David, make it brief so I can get to Robert.

ROLLAND: Yeah, we have to – we can’t talk about the – all this without talking about the prison guards union who – and they are part of what drives public opinion on this. They go into districts where legislators are talking maybe about being a little softer on crime and they go and they defeat those people in favor of people that will lock up more people.

PENNER: Do you think the prison guards union is pushing to keep the prisons packed in self interest?

ROLLAND: Yeah, oh yeah.

DAVY: Sure.

ROLLAND: They want prison jobs. And the more – the more people we warehouse in prisons, the more prisons we have to build, the more jobs there are for prison guards. So they go in – Don Novi was the – for a couple of decades, the head of that union, and he was one of the most powerful people in Sacramento. He could end a political career like that.

PENNER: All right, let’s hear from Robert in San Diego. Robert, you’re on with the editors. What do you have to say to us?

ROBERT (Caller, San Diego): Oh, hi. Thank you for taking my call.


ROBERT: My question is, you know, with California, you know, releasing 40,000 some-odd prisoners, we’re already in a state budget crisis, what’s that going to do for, you know, once these guys are paroled? They have to be monitored, you know, by a parole system and parole officers, I’m assuming, so, you know, what is that going to do to just, I guess, maybe the state budget or something like that because, you know, we’d have to possibly hire more parole officers…


ROBERT: …to keep track of those people.

PENNER: And, you know, interestingly, Robert, this morning our Katie Orr who’s a reporter for KPBS did an extensive report on the fact that parole officers even now are carrying huge loads and really, I mean, just enormous loads of parolees that they have to oversee and it sounds like an impossible job already. What about it, Chris?

REED: Well, it costs $46,000 a year to keep the – an inmate in California prisons. It’s not going to cost $46,000 a year to monitor them. So, yes, it would have a budget affect but it’s certainly not going to cost more to monitor them on the outside than to house them, feed them and – on the inside.

DAVY: No, but the problem is that that’s marginal dollars added to a system because you’re not going to eliminate any costs by moving 40,000 out. You’ve still got an ongoing prison system. You might save a little bit on health costs for those prisoners but you’re still going to have prisons that are overpacked or overcrowded at a point of capacity.

REED: Well, that’s not what the governor believes. The governor’s office has put out statements saying that we could save a lot of money. If you remember, in the closing days before the budget deal, there was the – all the uproar over the governor’s idea that we should let 20,000 folks go…

DAVY: Right.

REED: …to save a billion dollars a year.

DAVY: The governor’s also proposed some dramatic reform to the parole system that does not have people going automatically…


DAVY: …back to prison on technical parole violations.

PENNER: Okay, well, gentlemen, thank you very much for that discussion. It was very interesting. And thanks to our callers, too.

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