Calif. Lawmakers Debate Ways to Reduce Prison Population
Friday, September 4, 2009
The California Senate and Assembly can't agree on the best way to reduce overcrowding and cut costs in the state prison system. Each house of state government has passed its own plan for fixing the prison crisis.
David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat.
Barbara Bry, associate publisher and opinion editor of San Diego News Network.
Alisa Joyce Barba, Western Bureau Chief for National Public Radio.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): We've known for years that California's prison system is overcrowded and that prisoners are truly existing in packed, unsanitary conditions. And now a panel of federal judges has ordered that the 150,000 inmates, well maybe it's more than that now, 154,000 be reduced by 40,000. That's a big – That's like 25% of the population. But the governor plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. So, David, let's start this way. The state legislature has been working on a bill to reduce the prison population and now along comes this Schwarzenegger administration and asks the judges to put their decision on hold until the Supreme Court rules. So will everything come to a standstill now?
DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Well, the State Assembly didn't really help much. And we don't know if it's going to come to a standstill in terms of the federal ruling because the court may say, no, we're not going to grant your request for a stay. And you – you are – The State of California is violating the civil rights of a lot of people, and that's what they ruled, by not providing an environment where people can't get adequate, decent, medical care and mental health care. So it's certainly within the realm of possibility that this same panel of judges will say, no, we're not going to let you – we're not going to grant you your stay. So you've got to reduce this population or you've got to at least convince us that you have a plan to do so in the near future. Now the other side – You know, this issue's kind of been going on parallel tracks. The other thing that we haven't mentioned yet is that the budget agreement included $1.2 billion that was supposed to be cut from the Corrections – you know, the Corrections Department, the Prisons. And the State Senate went along with the governor's proposals to begin to reduce that budget. I think their proposals amounted to about $525 million and that they had other administrative ideas to cut the rest of the $1.2 billion. But – And so they passed a bill that would reduce the prison population over two years by 37,000 inmates which gives…
PENNER: Close to the 40,000.
ROLLAND: Gets you very close to it, certainly.
ROLLAND: And I think the federal panel of judges would probably smile upon that. But the State Assembly was not as bold. You could say that they chickened out a little bit. That's what I think.
ROLLAND: Well, because you have to do something. I mean…
PENNER: I mean, why – why…
ROLLAND: …we've got no choice. We've got to do something. We're under – Not only are we under a budget situation where we have to cut $1.2 billion, we are under a federal mandate to do something about this and they didn't do it.
PENNER: Well, I – That's my – My question is, why didn't the Assembly do it? I mean, it seems to me the pressure is on now. They've got to cut the money. They've got to cut the prisoners, the Senate's come up with a plan, and the Assembly hasn't. What's going on, Barbara?
BARBARA BRY (Opinion Editor, SDNN.com): Gloria, what's going on is politics, and the legislators are afraid to be seen as soft on crime when they come up for reelection. And so they're trying to come up with a compromise that will, you know, save the state the, you know, the $1.2 billion and, you know, give them political cover.
ALISA JOYCE BARBA (Western Bureau Chief, NPR News): I'm so surprised at the craven political cowardice in Sacramento. I mean, who would've thought?
PENNER: Well, meanwhile, Alisa, do the prisons stay overcrowded? I mean, if the judges say we're not going to put a hold on our order…
BARBA: If the…
PENNER: …you've got to cut the 40,000.
PENNER: And the legislature's not coming up with a plan, what then?
BARBA: What happens is that the courts come up with a plan and they let the legislators off the hook so they don't have to say that they, you know, voted to, you know, release petty criminals onto the streets of California, and they are given cover, as Barbara says, they are given cover.
ROLLAND: Yeah, what this came down to – Of course, you know, you have the Republicans, you can always expect them to run around with their hair on fire when it comes to, you know, criminal justice issues. They're coming out there saying the most irresponsible, reckless things about how these people are going to be set free in your community and they're going to go around, you know, and attack our women and, you know, there's going to be mayhem on the streets. That was an exact, direct quote from a Republican Senator, Jeff Denham, and so that, you can expect. But then what happened was there was a handful of Democrats that are in vulnerable – what they perceive to be vulnerable seats around the state where they will – They're afraid they're going to be targeted by the GOP, which will flood the local airwaves with thirty second spots saying, you know, this – this person wants these criminals to come attack you. You know, so it's just playing into the worst kind of thirty second spot politics.
PENNER: Well, Barbara, when we take a look at this situation, in effect what David is saying is that politicians or some politicians are more worried about their careers than about humane conditions in the prison.
BRY: I think, unfortunately, that's true, Gloria. And part of why we have so many people in prison, it's a result of the Three Strikes law and one of the compromises they're looking at is sort of reducing from a felony to misdemeanor certain crimes and then – so the – not as many people would be sentenced under the Three Strikes law. And even this can't get approval currently.
PENNER: What do you think that the public sentiment is in California? Do we have any sense of that? I mean, if the legislators are reacting in such a way, especially, you know, those who are up for election, are they basically saying we believe the people of California are more worried about, you know, keeping crime off the streets and keeping people in prison than in seeing something happen to reduce the prison population?
BRY: Well, what I see lacking in Sacramento right now is leadership, and it would be terrific if the governor would actually step up and explain, you know, what the compromises are to save this $1.2 billion and the fact that it probably does not endanger the people of California, but I don't see anybody doing this in a clear way. So I think people are very confused right now as to what the impact is of releasing these people.
PENNER: Well, let me ask my – our listeners about that. I mean, what we're saying here is that your legislators are not doing their due diligence, they're not doing their duty when it comes to seeing that the prison population is reduced. Are you concerned about this? Or is it ho-hum time? I'd like to know whether you sense that it is time for our elected officials to take a stand on this. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Let's hear from Ernest in Mission Hills. Hi, Ernest, you're on with the editors.
ERNEST (Caller, Mission Hills): Hi. Thank you. The – Just briefly, the issue of politicians worrying more about their reelection than doing what's right, I mean, it's kind of cliché but the truth of the matter is in a very real sense, you could eliminate this by just getting rid of term limits. I think you could begin the process anyway because all term limits ever did was create a full employment act for political consultants and for campaign operatives. But coming to the issue of prison reform and prisoner conditions, I think that the argument tends to be framed in a way that makes it seem like it's either get tough on criminals or act humanely. And I think that if people would understand, and if you'd get some leadership from people that would say, if you create a more – humane conditions does not mean necessarily lesser punishment, you know, more pleasant environment for these guys to be in prison. We certainly want people who break the law to be punished but what we don't want is for them to get tougher when they, you know, tougher when they are about to be released than they did when they came in. And prison conditions create an environment that make these guys much harder to deal with, much less socially, you know – much less able to participate in normal social life outside of prison. It makes them very tough, makes them very mean, and it's a public safety issue. We could help ourselves, help our own conditions by, in a sense, taking these prisoners, especially the ones that are in for non-violent offenses, and rehabilitating them, trying to create conditions where it makes – where we – you can get it through their heads that they can have a much better life if they will conform to laws, conform to the way society is supposed to behave.
PENNER: Okay, Ernest, we get your idea, and we thank you very much. We're up against a break now. We'll get comments from the editors after the break. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner at the table today with David Rolland, Alisa Joyce Barba, and Barbara Bry. And our lines are really full. Everybody wants to talk about this prison situation. Before we get to your calls, we'll try to get to as many of them as possible. We really want to hear what you have to say. David has a whole list of ideas in his head so, David Rolland, you're up.
ROLLAND: Well, I – First I wanted to say, amen, brother, to Ernest, who was, you know, speaking my language there. Talk to anybody who understands California prisons and they'll tell you that people come out worse than they go in. The conditions are that bad and that overcrowded and that horrifying in there. So it behooves us, like he said, to establish an environment that's a little more humane. And, again – And, number two, we're not talking about massive release of prisoners. We're talking about releasing some people into home detention. We're talking about lessening the sentence of certain crimes like petty theft, bad check writing, receiving stolen property, changing those to misdemeanors where these people would – some of them would revert to custody in local jails, which sets up its own problem, but we're not talking about massive release of hardened, violent criminals into the communities. Also, the Republicans are acting like these people would be in prison the rest of their lives if we don't, you know, if we don't do anything. That's not true. The average stay in a prison is two years. All we're talking about is speeding up release of some people. These people are going to get out anyway. Are the Republicans saying that something magical is going to happen within that maybe six months period of time, that they're going to become model citizens and it's okay to release them when they're currently set to be released.
PENNER: Okay, now David is talking only about the Republicans but, Alisa, it's more than the Republicans. The prison guards are opposed to this, aren't they?
BARBA: There's a lot of people in the Corrections community apparently, and in law enforcement, that are opposed to this as well.
PENNER: Right, so the Republicans have some backing here.
Let's hear from Allison in Oceanside. Allison, you're on with the editors.
ALLISON (Caller, Oceanside): David just took some of what my question was. I wanted to know who exactly were they thinking about, you know, letting go of to reduce the population. And I guess I'll revise a little and can you guys talk about the population that may be rehabilitating drug addicts and parole offenders or technical parole offenders and, you know, I've heard some plans for that but I think the common people really need to know what the plan is for the release of these people and what types – exactly what types of people they're thinking about, you know, putting back out into the population.
PENNER: Okay. All right. So, David, yeah, I understand that some of the rules would also have to do with not being as strict on some of the parole violations.
ROLLAND: Yeah, there are a lot of people that go back – go back into – Part of our record-setting recidivism rate in this state—I don't know if it's record-setting but it's awfully high—is due to parole, people that miss a meeting or something with their parole – with their probation officer, you know, when they're on parole, and they get shuttled right back into prison. There are, yeah, there are – I believe there's a provision in both the Senate and the Assembly bill that the Assembly was okay with but, I mean, I could list off all the provisions of who we're talking about but it probably would take some time.
PENNER: It would and we're just about out of time, so I want to ask our listeners, especially those who have called in on this, please register your comments at KPBS.org/EditorsRoundtable. We'd like to hear from you but we have just about run out of time. But I don't think it's really fair for me to go on until I just check out with you, David, what elements in these bills could jeopardize public safety? If people are really worried about public safety, what's in there that could jeopardize public safety?
ROLLAND: I actually don't think there's anything in there that would really jeopardize public safety. I mean, of course, some – any – you know, you could apply chaos theory to anything and something bad can always happen. I believe, actually, that this would make California safer, to tell you the truth.
PENNER: Okay. Well…
ROLLAND: And I also wanted to mention that we have our own localized element of this story, that Assemblyman Marty Block – we have – I have an early document that says he didn't vote on this thing and then he is…
PENNER: On the Assembly bill.
ROLLAND: Yeah, and he has produced – his office has produced a document that said he did vote. It's a question of whether he didn't vote first and then he went in when they realized that they had enough votes and then he said, I'm voting no on this.
PENNER: He voted no.
ROLLAND: He – he – Yeah, he voted no and it's unclear to me when he voted now.
PENNER: So is he one of the Assemblymen that might be considered vulnerable that he's concerned about getting reelected?
ROLLAND: Yeah, the person who – the person who preceded him in his district is Shirley Horton, a Republican, and before that it was a Democrat. And so, yes, the Republicans see the 79th—I think it's the 79th—78th, 78th District as a swing district that's vulnerable to takeover.
PENNER: Okay, so people can read your article in San Diego CityBeat because you did write about it. Well, I'm sorry we didn't get to all the calls. Again go to KPBS.org/EditorsRoundtable and let us know what you think about this. Let's move on.