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Will Latest Calif. Prison Legislation Fix Major Problems?


Will the legislation that was passed by the State Senate and Assembly do enough to fix the problems in the California prison system? We speak to a reporter and a sociology professor about the biggest problems in the state corrections system, and to get their thoughts on the latest legislation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signaled his support for a new bill to reduce the state prison population. Now we'll have to see if those reductions will satisfy a federal mandate. A panel of three federal judges ordered California to draft a prison plan to reduce the number of inmates because of severe overcrowding. There are currently 167,000 inmates in state prisons, that's about double the number the prisons were originally designed to hold. After the governor signs the legislation by Friday's deadline, the three-judge panel will review it to see if it adequately addresses the overcrowding issue. And meanwhile the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that it will review the matter after the panel comes to its decision. I'd like to welcome my guests. Solomon Moore has been covering California's prison population problems. He is the criminal justice correspondent for the New York Times. And, Solomon, welcome to These Days.

SOLOMON MOORE (Correspondent, New York Times): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Ryken Grattet, a sociology professor at the University of California Davis. Ryken was principal investigator on a 2008 report titled "Parole Violations and Revocations in California." Ryken, welcome.

RYKEN GRATTET (Professor of Sociology, University of California Davis): Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Solomon, let me start with you and ask you, now this bill that the governor is poised to sign is a consolidation of the versions that the State Senate and the Assembly have passed. Can you explain a little bit what that legislation entails?

MOORE: Yeah, it – Well, first of all, it provides up to six weeks of good time credits for offenders who are engaged in programs in prison, up to six weeks early release. That would only apply to certain prisoners, mainly non-serious, non-violent prisoners. It also will really create some sweeping reforms for parole. It will reduce the amount of supervision for non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offender parolees, and it will take away the possibility that they could be violated on technical violations rather than new criminal charges, and by doing that, the parole system will be able to reallocate resources from those kinds of criminals to more serious, more violent offenders. So parole agents who currently have an average caseload of about 70-to-1 will have a caseload of about 45-to-1 and so they'll – those more serious offenders will have more supervision. It also will provide a little bit of money for community corrections programs so that inmate – or, I'm sorry, parolees who would have gone back to prison with technical violations, the counties will be receiving some money, some seed money, to provide programs to those people in their local areas.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Solomon, as I understand it, the Senate bill was – the bill that passed the State Senate was a lot closer to the kind of reforms that the three judge panel was asking for than the one that the Assembly passed. How did they reconcile that? And this bill, does it come close to what the panel wanted California to do?

MOORE: Well, the main purpose of the bill, as I understand it, was, one, to save about $1.2 billion in the state budget. And then other goal of the bill was to reduce the prison population, which has been the main issue that this three judge panel has been looking at. This current version will reduce the prison population by an estimated 16,000 inmates. The three judge panel is calling for the prison system to reduce its prison population by about 43,000 inmates. That prisoner cap is – has been suggested because, as you said in the beginning, the system has about double the number of inmates it's designed to hold. And the three judge panel has said that this is one of the main reasons, overcrowding in the California prison system, one of the main reasons that the system can't provide a constitutional level of medical, mental and dental care to its prisoners. And because of that about one prisoner a week has been dying unnecessarily, according to the three judge panel.

CAVANAUGH: And so what is it that might happen on Friday if, indeed, this bill is signed and gets to the panel? Will they begin reviewing it? Will they make a decision on it almost immediately?

MOORE: The federal court has mandated that the state come up with a plan by this Friday to reduce the prison population by 43,000 inmates within two years. The threat that they're holding out is that if the state doesn't do this, the court will do it for the state. Schwarzenegger has been taking kind of a double, kind of parallel track on this. On the one hand, he's been trying to push through the kinds of reforms we're seeing in SB triple – I'm sorry, SB-18XXX but on the other, he's been fighting in the courts and he did go to the Supreme Court to appeal the three judge panel's jurisdiction over the state prison system. The Supreme Court last week said that their request for an extension for this plan that's due on Friday, their request would be denied. So Governor Schwarzenegger is going to have to come up with a plan on Friday, and we'll see what's in it.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get Ryken Grattet into the conversation, sociology professor at the University of California Davis. And, Ryken, you've been studying the California prison system for a long time. I'd like to get your thoughts on this legislation and if you think it does enough to address the problem.

GRATTET: Well, I mean, I think that there's some questions I think we need to ask of it, some of which have sort of already been laid out there. But, you know, so the first one is sort of will the elements of this legislation actually reduce the population enough to satisfy the federal court, and I think the answer is really no at this point, and that it really falls to the details of this plan to determine that question. And then, you know, the broader question about whether or not these reductions will actually improve the healthcare in the system. You know, will it – is it the case that reducing population alone is going to resolve those problems or are there other efforts that really need to be coupled with that in order to bring that into being. And then I think there's the question of whether or not the reductions will actually solve – will actually save the money that is promised. And so each of these areas are things, I think, that should, you know, should be – we should be thinking about as we evaluate the recent efforts here.

CAVANAUGH: So, Ryken, as you look at this legislation, you see various elements that we need to look at and perhaps really don't address the major issues in California prisons. What, in your opinion, are those major issues? What are the biggest problems we have in the California prison system?

GRATTET: Well, I mean, I do think that the issue of overcrowding is probably the major issue right now but there's so many things that sort of feed into that. On the front end process of, you know, sentencing, you know, are we sentencing people – the right people to prison? Are there some offenders that might be better served through probation or through some other kind of lesser sentence? And then on the back end, are we really returning people to prison for parole violations who really need to be returned? And the state has really had sort of an absence of alternatives to returning people to prison until fairly recently and so a lot of what, you know, is a question is sort of how will, you know, how will these new programs be used? Will the parole board officials who have them at their disposal actually use them? So there's a whole bunch of questions about sort of the back end sort of driving forces on overcrowding and the front end, you know, sentencing issues that really haven't been addressed. I suppose the back end issues have – they've begun to address those. But the question is really whether or not the steps taken so far are actually going to translate into the gains that are projected.

CAVANAUGH: Solomon Moore, criminal justice correspondent for the New York Times, Solomon, I wonder when we hear about this legislation and we hear that there are going to be a number of – fewer ways that parolees can reoffend to be send back to prison, is that the first change that we may see implemented if, indeed, this legislation becomes law?

MOORE: Yeah, that's going to – that's going to be one of the major changes but two things that I think we need to remember. I mean, one is that California paroles pretty much every single offender who comes out of prison. It's really one of the only states that does that and it's one of the reasons that California has the largest parolee population in the country. The other thing I think that's important to remember is that of those parolees who do come out, you know, about 70% of those, about one, you know, 120,000 prisoners are released every year from California. I think that's about right. And then about 70% of those folks are going back into prison within three years. That's a very, very high rate of recidivism. And what – And many of those people, most of those people are going back in for technical violations, things like missing their appointments with parole agents, failing drug tests because they have drug or alcohol problems, things like that that are not necessarily criminal charges. Those people go in for maybe three months, four months, and that creates a great deal of churn in the prison system. That means that these people are coming in and they're staying in the prison system only long enough to get assessed, get their medical, their dental, you know, these things done, and then they're right back out on the street without any rehabilitation and that costs the state a lot of money for very little benefit.

CAVANAUGH: And that's what…

MOORE: So that's what this…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, right.

MOORE: …bill is really aimed at changing.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right. And, Ryken, I want to ask you, okay, so we talk now about these reoffending prisoners going back, the parolees going back to prison and being part of that medical system that is so terribly overcrowded. But even with getting those parolees, fewer parolees, reoffending and getting back into prison, do you see this legislation really correcting the main problem that the three judge panel found in the prisons and that is this overcrowding of medical facilities, not enough medical treatment available for prisoners?

GRATTET: Well, I think that's – I think it's part of it. I mean, I think there's probably two other legs to that stool, too. One is the space to, you know – one of the things that the court has concluded is that they have, you know, about half the space that they actually need to provide the medical services. So, you know, reducing the inmate population, they – Quite frankly, they may end up releasing people who are kind of average – on average healthier than the inmates so they may not actually have a, you know, a huge impact on the medical system proportionate to the amount of people that are coming through. So space is one big issue that's a real problem. The other issue is staff, and they've made some improvements. Some of the sort of horror stories about medical treatment and the – that have come out out of this court – these court cases are quite remarkable, especially as they relate to portrayals of the competence of the doctors that have been working in the prison system. And there's some indication that they've made improvements in terms of hiring people and sort of, you know, weeding out lesser qualified individuals and – but there's still just a huge need for nursing support and other kinds of technicians and stuff like that. So staffing is a big part of it, space is a big part of it, and then the overwhelming pressure on the system that comes about from overcrowding is, you know, the one that's really being addressed here.

CAVANAUGH: I can hear, Ryken, from your analysis of this that it really falls short in your estimation as to what's needed for California's prison system. But I wonder if there's any good news in this? Is there – Is this legislation a good step in the right direction?

GRATTET: Yeah, and I think I would – I mean, I think that there are some things that are – can be emphasized here. You know, these are small steps and, you know, part of the dissatisfaction that some feel about the bill is that the governor's version and the Senate version really sort of promised quite a bit and then they backed away from it in the final, you know, analysis. But I would point to the, you know, what Solomon said about the sort of rethinking of the parole, the approach to parole, concentrating supervision around selected, you know, higher risk kinds of individuals and not spreading supervision across the entirety of this enormous population. You know, they – the reporting on the caseloads is – by their contract, the parole agents, you know, are supposed to carry 80 persons or less on their parole agent (sic) as they currently stand but, in fact, parole agents frequently carry many, many more. And then when you couple that with the fact that there's this enormous turnover in their population, it's very difficult for them to get to know the needs of the people that they're supervising. So the reduction of the caseload, to the extent that it actually means that it'll be a ratio closer to 45-to-1 is a positive, I think.

CAVANAUGH: Solomon, you know, we heard a lot, and Ryken just referenced that the fact that there was such a big difference between the Senate version and the Assembly version of this prison population reform bill, and I – isn't it true that the governor can make changes through some sort of executive order?

MOORE: Well, the governor can do a lot with parole with the corrections system on his own because, I mean, that – it's one of his, you know, one of his agencies, really, I mean. So that is true, and you had some opponents of this bill saying, well, you know, the governor's just seeking political cover. Let him push through some of these issues. But, you know, what people in the governor's office said and what Democrats said up in Sacramento is that in order for real reform to take root in California so that it's not kind of changing every time a new governor comes into office—and, as we know, Governor Schwarzenegger is going to be leaving office pretty soon—you really have to, you know, enshrine these kinds of reforms into law. And I just wanted to just point out one other issue here that we haven't mentioned, and that is the legislation also mandates that the corrections system uses a risk instrument on parolees and what that means is when parolees are going to be released, they should be kind of evaluated for what needs they have and also, you know, their risk to society, but what needs they have. Now this bill does not really provide a whole lot of money for programs, rehabilitation programs, drug treatment, housing, that kind of thing. But what this will do is, it'll create sort of a – it'll create the data. It will make transparent the information that policymakers need to have in order to make further reforms in the future. They'll be able to see what the needs of this population are. And that's a big step as well because it'll create political pressure for more reforms in the future.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Solomon, isn't it true that after the three federal judge panel reviews this proposal and makes a decision on it that the U.S. Supreme Court might get involved in reviewing the whole matter?

MOORE: Well, as I said earlier, the Supreme Court has already made sort of an initial foray into this by rejecting the governor's request for an extension of the deadline. And, yes, if the governor has promised to continue to appeal this and he would be appealing the three judges' – the three judge panel's decisions to the Supreme Court. That's where it would go. So, yeah, we can expect to see more battles playing out at the Supreme Court over this matter.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us this morning. I've been speaking with

Solomon Moore, criminal justice correspondent for The New York Times. Solomon, thank you.

MOORE: You're welcome.

CAVANAUGH: And Ryken Grattet, a sociology professor at the University of California-Davis. Ryken, thanks a lot.

GRATTET: Oh, you're welcome.

CAVANAUGH: And you can continue this conversation online at And coming up, a discussion about the open carry gun movement as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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