Roundtable: California Ordered To Reduce Prison Population
It's been nine years since a federal court first declared the overcrowding in California's prisons an emergency. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 2002 lower court ruling that gave California two years to move tens of thousands of prisoners our of the state's overcrowded prisons. Reaction from legislators, government officials, experts, think tanks and the public is flooding into the public dialogue.
Guests: Joanne Faryon, reporter, host, KPBS News STUDIO 858 349-8771
David Rolland, editor, San Diego CityBeat STUDIO
JW August, managing editor, 10News STUDIO 619 992-2210
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.
PENNER: So let's start with the prisons. It's been nine years since the federal court first declared the overcrowding in California's prisons an emergency. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 2002 lower court ruling that gave California two years to move tens of thousands of prisoners out of the state's overcrowded prisons. There's been reactions from legislatures, government officials, experts, think tanks and the public. And it's flooding into the public dialogue. So Joanne, let's start with you. Tell us how we got to this point, how did the case beginning.
FARYON: Well, as you were saying, Gloria, this has been sort of a long time in the making. I began as a lawsuit a couple decades ago with inmates saying they didn't have access to proper healthcare. Healthcare and mental health services. Finally in 2002, we thought we had a decision that said, yes, a court decided -- a federal panel, actually, of three judges decided, yes, that's right. Inmates were not getting access to healthcare. And it's because prisons were so crowded. They couldn't get access. There were a number of appeals and so on, finally in 2006, a federal court appointed a federal receiver. At the time they said they put a receiver in charge of prison healthcare because they said, still, despite these orders, despite these rulings, inmates were still not having access to healthcare. Let's fast forward again. Another court orders the state to reduce its prison population. The state appealed that decision, and this is now the final ruling that came down this week, this U.S. Supreme Court said okay, California you have to do something because your prison, which were built for roughly a hundred thousand, we've seen a lot of numbers in the media, basically these prisons are meant to held 100,000 inmates. Right now, there's 142,000 or so inmates in these prisons.
PENNER: Okay, so there you have it. The ruling is in. We have to reduce our prison population we'll see about 35, 30 thousand, and I'd to know how you, our listener, feels about this change, this development, this real change for San Diego. Because we're gonna have to develop a way of dealing with people who are coming back to the community in some fashion. So let me ask you about this, JW, the Court said that this overcrowding is cruel is inhuman treatment of prisoners. But the fear is that releasing a dangerous population would endanger the general public. How are these different attitudes reconciled?
AUGUST: Well, it's -- perspective over the years. I think that that's some very basic problems in our criminal justice system. A lot of people will spend too much crime in jail for the crime they pulled. That's true in America, and it's particularly crew in California. That the that politicians fur survival reasons will never oppose laws getting tougher and throwing more people in jail. How many times have we seen a politician get up on a soap box for a particular crime and then institute a law that they can throw other people in jail and never think about the funding? And the funding's the. We love to have everything in this state, but who's gonna pay for the prisons? And I don't think you can build enough prisons to keep throwing people in jail, and people live longer, it's like trying to build the freeways to handle traffic in San Diego. We're always gonna be behind. I don't think the solution is trying to build our way out of it with more prisons or get tough with law enforcement. Part of the problem is politicians don't have the courage to say, hey, enough is enough. We need to look at another way of doing this. 'Cause if they do that, then that's a good chance somebody's gonna come after them during election time, and they're gonna say oh, you're soft on crime, dude.
PENNER: Okay. Before we get to David Rolland on this, I want to ask him something really specific I've been saving for him. Let's go to the phones 89, our number is 1-888-895-5727. And we have Jim in Kensington. Jim, welcome to the Roundtable.
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I agree with everything that JW just said. And I want to say that the prisoners can go and live at Grover Norquist's house. If nobody wants to pay taxes and they want to throw everybody in jail, that's the only solution I can come up with.
AUGUST: I hope he has a big house.
PENNER: All right. Let's respond to that. Thank you, Jim. Are increasing taxes or extending tax increases the answer? Pay more money and you'll have more places to put the prisons?
ROLLAND: Sure, that's one answer. Yeah. That would certainly held alleviate the problem. If you want to -- if you want to expand the prison system. But a lot of people don't want to expand the prison system. They want to retract it.
PENNER: Well, what about -- I'm sorry, Joanne. What about JW's point that politicians think it looks good to be tough on crime?
ROLLAND: Yeah. This -- part of this problem, I see it as there was kind of a big wave of crime and reaction to crime back in the '80s and 90s when it was really easy for largely conservative politicians to take a real tough stance on crime. There were a lot of policies that were enacted. The most famous one being the three strikes ruled, mandatory minimum sentencing. That really swelled the ranks of the prison dramatically. And -- but I'd also have to say that the prison guards' union had a large, large role to play in that.
PENNER: Is that good or bad?
ROLLAND: Bad in my opinion. They could -- the head of the union was a man named Don Novi, and he was regarded in Sacramento has somebody who could really single handedly end your political career if you don't vote to expand prisons and to create more jobs for prison guards.
PENNER: Okay. Joanne Faryon?
FARYON: Yeah, I would like to add to that. Last year we actually looked into this. So we went and looked into and researched to find out are we tougher on crime than other states? What are we actually doing? And in fact, there was a commission, a little Hoover commission that looked at our policies, our legislative policies since the '70s, in fact. And it wasn't just three strikes, it was determinant sentencing as you I sa, David, a lot of things like if you commit an offense with a gun, they can add two years. So it was a whole series, page upon page that this commission came up of legislative changes that contributed to our so called tough on sentencing that actually began after the whole helter-skelter Charles Manson. You saw a lot of these groups sort of born out of that that were not tough enough on crime. Before -- prior to that, you would see people who were convicted of manslaughter, what have you, or second degree murder, out after six or seven years. Now we went into prisons, you don't see that. We have 37,000 lifers in prisons in California, which I believe when we checked, it was the highest number of lifers in any state. And we interviewed people who had been there for 44 years, for 40 years. So we have created a scenario where we have more inmates who are getting older and sicker, and they create a larger demand for healthcare, and the healthcare which the Court says they're not getting.
PENNER: David Rolland?
ROLLAND: It's important to note here that we're already heading in the right direction, as I believe Joanne mentioned when she was laying out the background of the story. We're down to about a hundred and 40 thousand people in California's prisons. Just a couple years ago, that was a hundred and 60 thousand. So we've already reduced the population by about 17 thousand from its peak. Now, nobody has a plan. I'm sure we'll get into what Jerry Brown would like to do about this. But it's -- first of all, it's important to note that the Supreme Court didn't say release a bunch of prisoners out into the streets. What they said is you have to reduce your population. And there are different ways of going about doing that. You can transfer them over to other states' prisons. You can deport, you know, up to, I believe, 19,000 illegal immigrants that are in the prisons right now. You could deport them.
PENNER: What about using private facilities? Joel Anderson, senator from El Cajon is suggesting that we take a look at private facilities. They're cheaper.
ROLLAND: Well, there already are private facilities, but I believe they're part of the prison system that you've gotta reduce the population of.
FARYON: Well, I think what he was suggesting so the state -- the governor has said, okay, let's -- realignment. Let's have our county jail system take in some of these -- some of these convicted felon -- convicted criminals who do things that are not violent, and not sex offender, as part of that plan, Joel Anderson is saying, okay, well, maybe if we have private county or city run jails, they can do it cheaper than for the government price right now. But so we spoke actually to the sheriff, right, to bill gore earlier in the week about this. It looks like what we're really gonna see is not necessarily inmates transferred, but over the course of the next couple of years, new people who are convicted now being sentenced to county jail instead of being sent to state prison. You really would see the numbers go down.
ROLLAND: That was gonna be my next --
PENNER: David Rolland?
ROLLAND: That was gonna be my suggestion. That nobody is suggesting taking existing prisoners out of the prisons and moving them to county facilities. The idea -- the word as it is is perspective. New people -- if Jerry Brown's realignment plan goes through, it would be new people sentenced to crime that would be diverted away from prisons and into county facilities.
PENNER: Okay. So meanwhile, going back to the senator Joel Anderson, I heard him on Midday Edition this week, and he said that it's up to individuals to protect themselves, buy a dog, buy a gun, buy an alarm system. Well, JW, is that the answer?
AUGUST: Well, we all have to take personal responsibility, obviously. There are certain areas of the town I wouldn't be walking around with gold bricks balanced on my shelters late at night. Things like that. It's common sense. I don't agree with private prisons. To me, that's one of those things with unintended consequences because I've tried to deal with the people that run these private prisons, and trying to find out what goes inside. We are asking for trouble. One reason I think we have problems with the prison system from the get go is because the media was disallowed access into the prisons.
PENNER: The media?
AUGUST: It's greatly controlled. We can get in, but it's greatly controlled. You can't ask for one prison -- and you get very little access. And they can write us, but it's difficult for us to monitor what's going on in the prisons, and there's a lot of waste and abuse, and if it becomes a private prison, then what happens? I think it just -- they'll become what'll -- and there's corporations that you know are them now, I mean, they'll become hell holes.
PENNER: So let's bring it down to local for a minute, JW. What has been the reaction of our local law enforcement leaders to all this? Certainly Joanne mentioned sheriff gore. But generally, as a group, are they saying, okay, we're gonna have to deal with it, and we will?
AUGUST: Haven't heard anybody -- actually, they have been pretty quiet about it, to tell you the truth. Only sheriff gore, I've heard him talk about it.
PENNER: Let's see what David has to say.
ROLLAND: Bonnie Dumanis has talked about it, and her stance is that she, like many other county officials up and down the state have said, yes, we can do this, we can do it cheaper, we can do it better, we have -- there are more access to community rehabilitative services near the county rather than, you know, near the prisons that are all up and down I-5 in the farmland. But she says we can do it. We just need to make sure we have the money. And I can tell you that the money is already there. Jerry Brown wants to --
PENNER: Okay, thank you, David. And I want to thank all of the journalists who are with me. We're gonna come back, we have so many phone calls from people who want to get in on this conversation, and we're gonna take your calls when we come back. Okay, but next, before we do return with our panel of journalists, we're going to remind you that after we complete this segment on prisoners in California, we're gonna talk about San Diego's redistricting controversies as the September deadline approaches, and the idea of whether a new multimillion dollar downtown City Hall is permanently over the boards. And that's going to be part of our package as we come back and continue the show.
PENNER: I'm Gloria Penner, and this is the Roundtable on Midday Edition. We are talking about a recent ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that said that tens of thousands of prisoners have to be released from California's state prisons. We're talking about the implications of that and how local communities, specifically San Diego, will deal with that. And my panel of journalists here include JW August from 10 news, and Joanne Faryon from KPBS, and from San Diego City beat, we have David Rolland. And I promised we were gonna go right to your calls. And let's start with Patricia from San Diego. Patricia, thanks for calling in.
NEW SPEAKER: Oh, my pleasure. I just have a quick comment. And now I've just heard about this recently, and I will say that I am a convicted felon. I got convicted of a felony in 1978 and did my time. It was a victimless crime. But I did my time. And I just feel that, you know, they've closed down the death camps and detentions, so these are other detention facilities that I'm sure have been closed down as well, that I honestly believe that people who do the crime should do the proper time and get the proper rehabilitation. And it doesn't sound like anybody really has a plan or anybody really wants to lay it out. And I think JW's comments are a little bit cavalier.
PENNER: Which comment in particular, Patricia?
NEW SPEAKER: The one where he said he wouldn't walk through certain neighborhoods with gold bricks on his shoulders. I find that a little cavalier. I wish I had gold bricks to walk through a neighborhood with, but, you know, what about like the death camps and detention facilities? It's closed. What about places that have been closed down? Why can't they be reopened, and? And why don't the federal government since they've made the ruling take some of the prisoners into the federal prison systems?
PENNER: Okay, thank you, Patricia. We appreciate your call. Let's hear first from JW, our cavalier one.
AUGUST: Yeah, let me put my gold bricks down. I don't have gold bricks. I wish I did. Listen, I've done a couple stories on camp buren and Descanso, and I the supervisor, Jacob, last year during the fire season, why aren't these camps open? Why can't you keep the camps open? It would be a place you could put the prisoners, they're outside, it's a budget, with the sheriff's department. They don't want to spend the money for it, but I think that's maybe something they should look at again. Because when those camps are open, those people are actually down knocking down brush, they served a productive role, and plus there was a place to put the prisoners.
FARYON: And I think the caller hits on a very important point, the idea of rehabilitation and recidivism. We know in this state, our recidivism rate is somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. We're seeing the same people go back to prison, a revolving door. And if you want to attempt to kind of address that issue as well, one of the things Bonnie Dumanis did say, is, well, in terms of what's the plan. So even if we have room in our county jails to take people, even if they give us money, what's the support plan? Probation officers, rehabilitation center. We know that the county started a pilot project in terms of -- you have to plead guilty, first of all, to be part of this project, but it's kind of trying to rehabilitate people. So they don't go back to jail or back to prison. Order according to their stats, they have a 20 percent recidivism rate of the people enrolled in the program of and they compare that to a much higher recidivism rate county and state wide for people not in a program like this.
PENNER: Just specifically it would be vocational training, some education, some drug rehabilitation.
FARYON: Well, those are the kinds of programs that I think we saw more in state prisons up until we have had this budget crisis, and as we know, again, when money is short, programs like that get cut. I know last year we did a lot of reports, Ana Tintocalis, our education reporter at the time, did reports about programs like that that were being cut, particularly education programs from state prisons because of a lack of funds.
ROLLAND: And in Jerry Brown's current budget plan, there is -- I think it's a -- I can't -- maybe about a hundred and 50 million dollars out of rehabilitation, that is being cut, which is a very, very bad idea.
PENNER: Okay, well, we're almost out of time on this subject. But let's take one more call. This is from Suzanne in Clairemont. Suzanne, you're on with the journalists.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thank you very much. I guess I have a broader concern about what's going to happen if these individuals are released into the general approximation because the concern is they're not receiving the serves, whether it be health or mental health in the prison. But given that we have so few county resources that are able to address the issues in our general public in terms of health and mental health, and we have employment issues, will these individuals actually be able to acquire even better care once they're released?
FARYON: I think that's a great, yeah. And that's a question I'm going to make sure I ask as I continue to follow this story. What happens when they've done their time and they get out? Exactly. I think that's what we have to start asking with.
ROLLAND: Well, they're gonna do their time and get out regardless of what happens. Let's keep in mind who we're talking about, here. We're talking about the people that would be diverted away from prisons and into county jails would be -- the number one group would be lower level offenders. They would still do their time, they would just do it in a different place. And they're still going to be in those problems with employment once they get out. That's regardless of what happens. The second group of people that have been talked about are people that violate their parole on technicalities. They right now are sent back to prison and they do -- no.
FARYON: Well, not anymore. Starting last year, they stopped. And that was the whole controversy that four hundred and 50 of them were let out. They shouldn't have been. So that was -- they no longer as part of that he red program are being sent on technicalities. Certain -- certain inmates, yeah.
ROLLAND: Certain -- yeah, but I think part of Jerry Brown's realignment plan is that more of them would not go back to prison. They would stay in -- they would stay where they are. So I think there is a lot of running around with hair ablaze over this. And I don't think it's all that -- there's not that much reason for panic here.
FARYON: But the caller makes an important point though. If you suddenly have -- I'm gonna make up a number, a thousand more inmates that now do time in your county who may be in need of mental health, drug rehab, and if we don't have enough senses now, if they were dispersed across the state, it's not as much a local problem, right? It sort of becomes this bigger state problem. So it becomes a more acute local issue anyway.
PENNER: Okay, well, I thank you very much for that discussion. It is time for us to move on.