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Calif. Prison Overcrowding Could Spill Over To County Jails

Audio

Aired 9/3/10

We'll look at the prospect of loading up San Diego County's jail population with prisoners from the state. Will the county have enough cells and money to take on that burden?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Let’s move on to another issue, San Diego’s jail population—I guess we’re staying with the darker side of humanity this morning at least for awhile. It could grow significantly if the crime rate doesn’t. You know, before I continue, I want to say we have so many phone calls from people and I know they’re probably frustrated at not getting through to us, I really recommend that you go to KPBS.org, our website, slash-editors, I believe that’s the way you can get in and register your comment because I’d love to read what you have to say and I know others would, too. Okay, so with that, we go on to our jail population that I said could grow significantly because those prospective inmates would be the nonviolent overflow from overcrowded state prisons who are going to be sent to be housed in county jails throughout the state possibly. Probably most likely. John, first of all, there are several options being considered in Sacramento to reduce the state prison population. What are those options?

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, if you look at it, from a chronological standpoint it started back in 2005. The state is under a special master’s supervision in terms of reducing the population. We have 160,000 people, approximately, in jails in California. We’ve looked at outsourcing, quote, unquote, in terms of transferring people out of state in order to reduce the number. We’ve come to agreement with a number of states so far, I believe it was like 10, and we’ve transferred some people out. We went through a process of allowing inmates to select to be transferred. And there’s been a tremendous amount of court battles and struggles against the whole concept as people such as the Peace Officers Association and lawyers for inmates have fought against it. But when you narrow this down, California has to do something. In addition to outsourcing to other states and private entities, they’re now turning to the counties. San Diego County is one of those counties in the state. There are proposals to send money along with the inmates. We happen to have some vacant beds here. We have some available beds. We have a county capacity, I believe, of 5700 and we’re only using like 4500 and so on the surface it looks okay. But the dollars coming with it, the kind of people coming, the limitation it places on our county even using its space for additional offenders coming in, raise some very serious issues and I think Sheriff Gore has been very outspoken and very accurate in terms of stating his concerns.

PENNER: He’s definitely concerned about it and it’s also a concern, Scott, about the money aspect. From what I understand, for every prisoner that is sent to be jailed in San Diego County, the county would get about $11,000…

SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, voiceofsandiego.org): Umm-hmm.

PENNER: …per prisoner per year, I guess.

LEWIS: Right.

PENNER: And from what I understand, that doesn’t anywhere cover the cost of housing and feeding and taking care of those prisoners.

LEWIS: You know, I can’t do the analysis or I haven’t, but I, you know, I trust Gore when he says that, when he’s frustrated about the burden, and this is a common complaint among counties in this state, that they’re being given these responsibilities and these commitments and yet not the resources to pursue them whether it’s additional elections or whether it’s social service promises or whether it’s now the jail issue. You know, this came up during the campaign for sheriff, the fact that Gore and the Sheriff’s Department has hundreds of beds literally open right now and without inmates sleeping in them and so, you know, during the campaign, the guy who’s running against Sheriff Gore complained, said, you know, look, there’s 70,000 warrants out, why aren’t you arresting these people and putting them in these beds? And Gore made the point at that point that, look, you know, you can’t put a shoplifter in with a murderer. These aren’t just a blanket, you know, open set of beds. And I think that’s what he’s saying now. It’s not that, you know, there’s not just this stack of beds open and the state can’t just give me a stack of inmates to put in there, that it’s not that simple and that it’s really going to constrain them when, you know, as they need their own buffer of beds to go forward. So I think it’s a very interesting issue and yet it’s another indication of just how desperate the state is.

PENNER: David, before I get to you, I want to ask our listeners about this. You heard what John said. We do have more beds than we need at the moment. However, when you think about the thousands and thousands of prisoners that would have to be unloaded from the state prisons and assuming that, you know, the crime rate stays constant, it doesn’t go up, those few hundred beds could very shortly be filled. So, David, there is concern about what is called—it’s become an emotional phrase—early release. We take these prisoners and we move them through the system very quickly and then get them out on the streets again. You know, how concerning is that?

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Well, it’s very concerning to politicians who often like to capitalize on that kind of fear. I know there was some absolutely – I’m trying – I wouldn’t be able to come up with the specific members of the state legislature who were saying these things but last summer when we were talking about this, I heard some crazy things about, you know, violent criminals, you know, marauding and roaming the streets, killing and raping at will, and that’s the kind of thing that we need to figure out how to put a leash on because it’s a lot more nuanced than that.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. David Rolland certainly paints a graphic picture of violent criminals marauding in the streets of San Diego. How accurate do you think that is? Give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. You want to follow up on that, David?

ROLLAND: Uh…

PENNER: If you don’t, you don’t have to. You just had that look on your face, you know.

ROLLAND: Well, I did and then – then you painted that, you know, the – repeated the picture that I sort of painted and I sort of lost track of where I was going with that so…

PENNER: Okay. All right, you are forgiven. I think, Scott, this is becoming a very political kind of discussion. I mean, here we have dueling sex offender centerpieces during – how can I put it? The governor and the Democrats are putting out these dueling plans, for example. The Democrats support that $23,000 per prisoner either goes from the state to the county, in other words if the state sends a prisoner to the county, $23,000 go. Or if the prisoner is housed in the state, then the state gets $23,000. So they’re trying to bring it down to dollars now rather than what is the right thing to do.

LEWIS: Right, and that just puts yet another number on the question that we all have to ask about whether that’s the best way to spend $23,000 to handle people that we’re frustrated with in our society. I mean, we have a situation now with the prison guard union and, you know, private prisons if they come, and of, you know, people being literally financially interested in people being incarcerated in this state and wanting them to be more incarcerated. And add to it the bloodthirst of people, you know, pushing for more and more severe sentencing on things like sex offenses and other crimes, and yet now we’re facing the consequences, the financial consequences of that and it’s being at, like a market right now, cost. You know, it’s being priced.

PENNER: Before we go into the break, which we’re going to do now and then we’ll take your calls right out of the break, that $23,000, it’s a choice of whether the state gives it to the county, if the prisoners are housed in the jails in the county, or whether the county, in turn, has to turn it over to the state if the prisoners are jailed in the state prisons. So in either way, you have public monies that are shifting back and forth and one wonders whether it really makes any difference. It’s all taxpayers’ money. Our number, 1-888-895-5727. We’ll be back in a moment. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.


PENNER: I’m Gloria Penner. This is the Editors Roundtable. At the roundtable today, John Warren, editor and publisher of San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, and Scott Lewis, CEO of voiceofsandiego.org, and from San Diego CityBeat, we have its editor, David Rolland. We are talking about what to do with state prisoners when they are unloaded from state prisons for two reasons. One reason is there is a federal judge order that says we’ve got to. And reason number two, our budget is overloaded and we need to do something about reducing costs. So that’s where we are and our number is 1-888-895-5727. And let’s start with some phone calls and because we have so many and a short period of time, will you make your comments brief, please. We’d appreciate it. We’ll start with Casey in El Cajon. Casey, welcome to the Editors Roundtable.

CASEY (Caller, El Cajon): Hi. Thanks for having me. So, you know, the question really is who continues to supervise these people once they’re released because they will continue to have the financial burden. So if they stay in the prison system, the Parole will supervise them and they will have state funds to do that. And if they’re – come to the county then the county Probation Department is responsible for supervising them so, really, the burden, financial burden, doesn’t end just when they’re released. And I know as a county employee it’s, you know, we have major financial problems. So it’s not just housing them, it’s supervising them when they’re released is the question here.

PENNER: Right. And, John, really that’s part of the issue, this push-pull over where are the funds going to come from, who’s going to suffer if the funds are suddenly directed, let’s say, to the Probation Department of San Diego County. They’re going to have to come from some other department.

WARREN: Well, I think we have about four separate issues that are being lumped together here and it’s very important, briefly, to make the distinction. One is the whole overcrowding of our prisons that the state has to deal with, both from the standpoint of special master and on the capacity issue, and also from the standpoint of health in terms of the special mental health supervisors that we have. The second part we have is because of the overcrowding, we have been given authority to outsource people to federal, state and private entities and so we’re engaged in doing that. But along with that, we come up with this early release concept, and the concept of early release is one that says we’re going to take less serious offenders, allow those people to come out earlier and so what’s happening now is we’re confusing early release, less serious offenders who can get out because they have limited time and a non-felony or seriously threatened efforts there. And then we have the need for additional space which is what is driving the governor and the state. Do we now take more serious people and house them since we’re outsourcing contracting in your county jails along with the early release program? So we need to separate the programs and look at what they mean in terms of the additional impact on the county.

PENNER: And then there’s another level, too, and that other level has to do with so we release some of these people out into the community again. What are they going to do? We have a stagnant economy that we’re going to talk about in just one or two minutes. I mean, people can’t get jobs who are skilled. What’s going to happen to these people when they’re out there trying to earn a living?

WARREN: Well, San Diego’s unique in that we’re one of the target cities for a pilot program that the DA has along with the state. And so we have churches and other entities working with people on the early release in terms of housing, jobs and the whole placement. That’s unique but it doesn’t address the bigger issue. We do – we are in better shape than most people, though, just based on that observation.

PENNER: And then we have organizations like Second Chance, Scott Silverman’s Second Chance, where…

WARREN: Yes.

PENNER: …he takes ex-cons and he actually trains them and places them, which is just great. Let’s take one more call. Irene in Lake Elsinore is with us. And, by the way, Casey, thanks very much for your thoughtful call. We appreciate it. Irene, it’s your turn.

IRENE (Caller, Lake Elsinore): Yes, thank you. I’d like to comment on I think they need to look at the ones that are doing like some of the lifers like, for instance, my nephew’s doing 28-to-life. His third strike was stealing a car. He’s been in for 11 years. He was 28 when he went in, and he’s learned his lesson. And his third strike was just GTA and, you know, they should look at some of those people that really want to get out and start their life over and do right for sure instead of letting all these short-timers out and going back and letting them out and going back again. It just doesn’t seem right.

PENNER: Just before we get a comment from David on this, what is GTA?

IRENE: It’s a grand theft for stealing a car.

PENNER: Oh, okay. Thank you very much. And thank you for your call, Irene. David, your final comment.

ROLLAND: Yeah, I mean, she brings up a good point, that this isn’t one size fits all. Getting back to the early release concept, you know, we’re not, as John says, we’re not really talking about, you know, violent criminals who are the most prone to re-offend. We could be talking about older prisoners who, studies show, are a lot less likely—a lot less likely—to re-offend just simply because they’re older. So, you know, we have – The U-T, the Union-Tribune, quoted Bill Horn, saying, well, you know, these people are supposed to be in prison for a certain amount of time so obviously there’s a reason for that. Well, you know, the caller brings up three strikes, you know, and that’s a whole other topic we could talk about an hour, another hour on three strikes by itself.

PENNER: And Bill Horn you’re referring to, Supervisor Bill Horn, who is running for reelection for his supervisorial district, just to let people know.

ROLLAND: Right, so we have to rethink, you know, what we’re doing with our money. Scott alluded earlier to this $23,000 and is that what we want to spend $23,000 on or is there a better allocation of that money? Just like the City of San Diego couldn’t afford the pensions that it granted to its municipal employees, the State of California cannot afford its criminal justice laws. We just simply can’t afford to put that many people in prison…

PENNER: Well, we need about…

ROLLAND: …without raising new revenue.

PENNER: How about a 12-hour marathon on this subject? I think that’s what we need. Thank you very much, David. And thanks to all of our callers. Again, I remind you, KPBS.org/editorsroundtable if you’d like to get your comment on. Our producer says that’s it, it’ll get you to us. KPBS.org/editorsroundtable.

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