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Solving California's Prison Crisis

Solving California's Prison Crisis
What needs to be done to fix California's prison crisis? The state's prisons are overcrowded, and the recidivism rate is the highest in the nation. We discuss the major challenges California faces in trying to reduce the overcrowding, and improve rehabilitation in the state correctional system.

Prison Crisis: Inmate Population Costing Millions

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, we’ll look at the sorry state of California’s prisons and what’s being done to clean up the mess; the City of San Diego’s latest headache, July’s budget shortfall forecast hovering around $200 million; and another persistent headache not helped by medical marijuana, unclear rules for legally dispensing the drug. The editors with me today are JW August, managing editor for KGTV 10News. Okay, everybody, happy birthday, JW. Everybody say happy birthday.

SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, Happy birthday.


DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Happy birthday, JW.

PENNER: There you go.

JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Thank you very much.

PENNER: Scott Lewis, CEO and Opinion Editor of Good to see you, Scott.

LEWIS: Good to see you.


PENNER: And David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat. Welcome back to you, David.

ROLLAND: I’m very happy to be here. Thanks.

PENNER: And our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. All right, let’s start this morning with the announcement that President Obama has won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. In case you haven’t heard, that was announced early, early this morning by the committee. Already, the worldwide e-mail and the twittering has begun as to whether he deserves this prize so early in his presidency with few concrete achievements in peace making. But the committee said he is responsible for a change in global mood wrought—that’s a committee word—by his calls for peace and cooperation. So let’s go once around the table and we’ll start with you, David Rolland. Is it too soon or will he benefit from these – this prize in terms of his initiatives internationally and domestically?

ROLLAND: Well, he probably deserves one for trying at least, albeit unsuccessfully, to bring Democrats and Republicans together on something like the healthcare bill. But, no, I would think that it’s – you know, it’s – I don’t think it’s based on what you do as a president, I think it’s based on what he – probably based on what he did before that and what came before that was a campaign where he, you know, he, you know, he preached, you know, global cooperation and understanding in trying to fix the problems, I believe, created by his predecessor.

PENNER: You know, actually the nominations closed two weeks after he became president, which is kind of interesting. He couldn’t have achieved much of a track record by then. What do you think about him getting the Prize, Scott?

LEWIS: Well, I think the galaxy might be a little upset. He did, after all, just bomb the moon. I don’t know if you heard about that.

PENNER: I didn’t.

AUGUST: With two rockets, yeah.

PENNER: Oh, yeah, I saw the videos.

LEWIS: Yeah, early morning here. The – I think that the – You know, they knew it was early. They’re trying – They’re not trying to reward him as much as, I think, it tells us more about what they’re trying to achieve, what they’re trying to add fuel to and help cultivate, which is what he says he wants to do.

PENNER: So you agree with David, it’s what he represents rather than what he’s accomplished.

LEWIS: Well, yeah, and I think that’s obvious. And I think that, you know, he’s articulated something that the whole world is responding to. Now whether we can deliver, I think, is what he said in his speech today is the big challenge. And he actually said he doesn’t deserve it. I think that – I think the question is now whether he lives up to it and I – and, trust me, they know that that question is now in his head, and that was the purpose.

PENNER: Okay, and you get the last word on this, JW. What do you think?

AUGUST: Well, if the cowboy president had been – hadn’t been in office, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten the award but I think the world was so relieved when Bush left office that – and so gratified to see somebody bring some hope to the entire world, that that’s probably why they gave him the prize.

PENNER: Okay, and that’s your birthday wish, as well.


PENNER: Thank you very much, and now let’s move on to our first other topic. Here’s an amazing number. In the mid-1970s, California was jailing 20,000 offenders. Today, we have 168,000 inmates. All week, KPBS Radio’s been focusing on California’s prisons, why they’re so overcrowded, what those conditions mean for inmates and guards, how they got that way and what can be done about it. And on a much more personal level as a voter, how responsible are California’s voters for the mess. So, JW, you’ve had an interest in California’s prisons for years.


PENNER: Finger-pointing for California’s overcrowded prisons often are directed toward the Three Strikes law, which the voters approved. It was Proposition 184, it became law in 1994. How could that law be the culprit?

AUGUST: Because what it does is removes a great deal of flexibility from the judges. It’s not just the only culprit. The real culprit is the prison guards’ union but that’s another story. But Three Strikes removed a lot of the flexibility, led to mandatory sentencing, sentencing guidelines, and a very restrictive – put them in jail, that was the mentality. Pete Wilson was our governor then. They spent tons of money to get the thing passed, and it’s been filling up the prisons ever since.

PENNER: But, Scott, there have been some attempts to scale it back so that the net wouldn’t be so wide and minor felons and burglars who have been sent away for life when they committed the third strike, that they would not be jailed for many, many years or for life. But the public has been resistant to that change. What’s going on with Californians?

LEWIS: Well, the debate has never been framed as though – You know, it’s very easy for residents to say, yes, tougher penalties, and it’s very easy for political leaders to say, yes, tougher penalties. But they never come out with the cost of enforcing and in jailing these offenders of these laws. And so we get to a situation where if these bills were put – presented, if these voter referendums and other things were presented with, well, this is the new harsher penalty but in order to enforce it, you’ll have to get rid of this and this other service that the city – or that the state provides. Then it would be a much different discussion and I think that’s the one we’re finally having. And I think, you know, you have a situation where Republicans in the state government also deal with this, too. They sit there – They reject all forms of – or they are very opposed to certain forms of social spending and social benefits, but when it comes to prisons they draw the line. And so it’s – You know, they’re very willing to invest in services for felons rather than for, you know, the kind of infrastructure and other things that would help the state benefit and create an economy where people had jobs and didn’t commit these things. Finally, when you have somebody who commits a crime and then who goes on parole, there are certain things that if they commit, you know, minor technical violations of their parole, should they go back to prison? And these are the kinds of things I think we can reasonably decide right now that maybe shouldn’t be enforced the way they have been so that we can save some money on the prisons. But, yes, it’s very easy to say, you know, enforce the law better, make people stay in jail longer. It’s a lot harder to say how are you going to pay for that?

PENNER: Okay, well, let me ask our listeners about that before I turn to David Rolland. Do you feel that at this point there should really be an initiative to remove some of the broadness of the Three Strikes law so that people who are minor felons who commit crimes that are not violent do not have to stay in prison for life and add to the size of our prison population. Like to hear your opinion. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. David Rolland, before I asked that question, you wanted to say something.

ROLLAND: Well, yeah, and Scott mentioned a reluctance to spend money on social programs that might do some good in, you know, diverting people away from prison life, so to speak. But there’s also a reluctance to spend any money, and these things don’t, excuse me, don’t cost that much money, on rehabilitation programs, you know, during prison. Excuse me. And so what you get is, you know, the average stay in prison is about two years. So the problem is, you talk to anybody who understands what it’s like to be in those crowded prisons and they’ll say that people come out worst than they go in. So as a consequence, you have a very high recidivism rate, you know, meanwhile – so it’s really just a revolving door.

PENNER: Okay. Go ahead, JW.

AUGUST: Well, and it’s not just Three Strikes, it’s also the war on drugs. When Nixon’s war on drugs began, that dramatically changed what has happened in the prison, the makeup of the prisoners, and I don’t think for the better either. You have many people in there doing crimes for – self-inflicted crimes. Back in the day, back in the ‘80s, California had one of the best, most progressive prison systems. Low recidivism rate, you know, not a lot of prisoners coming back. What’s happened? Well, you can point to the fact that a lot of this evolved from, one, the war on drugs, and, two, the Three Strikes law, and then the confusing sentencing guidelines in the state. I mean, one judge will give you one thing, another judge’ll give you another. All that adds to this boil. But the whole – kind of the glue that holds this mess together—because other states have these problems—is the very – the most powerful union in the state, and that’s the union that the prison guards belong to.

PENNER: But I’m wondering about the role of politicians here, JW. How culpable are politicians who are worried that they might be seen as soft on crime if they encourage changing or limiting the Three Strikes law or even opposing the prison guard union?

AUGUST: Not a lot of – They’ll get burned. There’ll be a 30 second spot when they run for office saying they’re soft on crime. They’re – Most of them don’t have the courage of their convictions. This would take really courage to take on the political establishment and the guards and the entire billion dollar prison industry. It would be difficult for a politician to make that stand. And speaking from a journalist’s standpoint, we have tried year after year, different journalism organizations to open up the prisons to us. They were greatly restricted during the Deukmejian era because of – I think an interview with Charlie Manson and they got outraged and victims’ groups got outraged and they really cut back on the amount of access journalists have to prison, and I think that parallels a lot of these problems because if we were allowed to go in there and have more access than the public does to the prisoners and talk to them unfettered, I think you’d see some changes.

PENNER: Okay, well, let’s turn to our listeners and hear what they have to say. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. We’ll start with Glenn in San Diego. Good morning, Glenn, you’re on with the editors.

GLENN (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

PENNER: Go ahead, please.

GLENN: I just wanted to make a comment and see why we haven’t – or why we don’t look at something similar to the Arizona tent city where the – like the nonviolent criminals will farm and provide their own food and look out for their own means, and go with a model, you know, based off to that.

ROLLAND: And wear pink – and be forced to wear pink underwear and work out there in 110 degree heat and…

PENNER: That’s David Rolland.

ROLLAND: …in Arizona? Yeah, well…

GLENN: Well, we have areas here that aren’t quite as hot as what Arizona is…


GLENN: …and we don’t necessarily need to adopt all of their policies but I definitely think that they have, you know, something that we should look at where the inmates are actually providing for themselves and aren’t such a burden on the taxpayers. But they also are able to, you know, serve out their full sentences.


PENNER: Okay, well, you know, it’s interesting to know that now we must release 43,000 inmates. And I’m going to turn to you on this, Scott. The federal courts have said we’ve got to let them go over two years. So who’s going to figure that one out? I mean, who’s going to decide who’s going to – which of the 40 of our inmates, 168,000 inmates, are going to be released? Is that going to be the governor? The legislature? The voters? What?

LEWIS: Well, it’s both. The – You know, right now they’re discussing what kinds of things they can do to change the parole violations laws, the other policies that keep people in prison so that they can release people or keep them from coming back. And I think that, you know, that’s going to be an important debate. Look, it’s – And it’s easy for us to chide politicians for not leading to a more coherent solution right now because it’s very difficult for, you know, when a horrible crime is committed and they identify that, you know, part of the reason that person was even in, you know, in society was because they had not been in – the parole violations had not been enforced, and then – and then, you know, a law gets passed that says, well these are the kinds of things that will protect that from happening again. How could you possibly oppose it? But what these laws need to accompany is cost analyses. Like I said, we have to understand what kind of sacrifice we have to make as a community to keep people in prison and to keep this many people in prison for the long term. And if we understand that, we can make much better decisions, I think.

PENNER: Okay. Well, Scott, we’re going to return and continue discussing the condition of our prisons and what we can do about it and what responsibility we, as citizens, have in this as Scott Lewis has been saying. We’ll be back in just a moment and we’ll take your calls. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. I’m at the roundtable today with JW August of KGTV 10News, Scott Lewis from, David Rolland from San Diego CityBeat. And, of course, we’re taking your calls. We’re talking about the condition of California’s prisons, the fact that we have to release 43,000 inmates over two years because of our overcrowded conditions where people are not getting sufficient medical care. And I asked a question—before I get to your questions—I asked a question. I wanted to know who’s going to make the decision about releasing the 43,000. Who’s going to choose who stays and who goes? And, David, you have an answer for me?

ROLLAND: Well, yeah. The legislature is supposed to take the reins on that. You know, the court – The federal court order was, you know, have 40,000-some-odd people released from prison over the next two years and there was a bill that first went through the state Senate and then the state Assembly that the estimated numbers was that they could have – it could have resulted in the release of some 37,000, so that’s almost all the way there. The Senate passed it but it stalled in the Assembly where there were a handful of Democrats either running in competitive districts in 2010 or running for State Attorney General, who would not go along with that bill even though they could’ve voted on provisions as innocuous as raising the threshold for property crimes to current day values. That was one of the provisions that they said no to. So we’re dealing with property crimes that are set at sort of like – I think it was 1982 value.

PENNER: Scott.

LEWIS: This is the danger of allowing anecdotes to govern. You have a situation where if a, you know, if they don’t oppose something like this and they do, you know, sign a bill that lets 30,000 people out, well, you can keep track of perhaps those 30 or 40,000 people that get let out. And, you know, who knows what one of them might do and what kind of horrible crime one of them might do? And if we use anecdotes to guide our governing philosophy then that anecdote would guide us to…


LEWIS: …saying we should have never let him out or her out. And so we’re in a situation – This affects every debate we’re having right now. If you don’t want to necessarily reform healthcare if it means that one person, you know, gets a bad deal and it, you know, ruins their life or something and you never know, you know, how to go forward with this. That’s why we need much more comprehensive analysis and then we need a leader that can help us articulate why these kind of changes are so valuable and so important and what kinds of sacrifices we’re making unless we engage in them.

PENNER: Do you have a leader in mind?


PENNER: You don’t? Okay.

LEWIS: Yeah.

PENNER: Well, let’s go to Brian in San…

LEWIS: Maybe the No – Maybe the Nobel committee can…

ROLLAND: How about you…

LEWIS: …can let us know.

ROLLAND: How about you, Scott?

LEWIS: Yeah, right.

PENNER: Scott Lewis. Brian in San Diego is joining us now. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Welcome to the Editors Roundtable, Brian.

BRIAN (Caller, San Diego): Hi.


BRIAN: Yeah, you know, I just had a comment. As a former inmate myself, you know, I’ve managed over the years to get myself off parole and whatnot but going through the system, you know, I’ve seen quickly how people with a one to two year sentence can very quickly turn their time into five, six to ten years, to life even in some sorts, you know, over actions that they have no control over. You know, I was hurt myself in prison, you know, the way the medical is set up, you know, and the help they provide, it’s very minimal. You know, I realize some of the actions I did myself were wrong, you know, and I had to pay for my time.

PENNER: Brian, you – but you’re out of prison now and…

BRIAN: Oh, yeah.

PENNER: …and you’ve been out for quite a while?


PENNER: Okay, well, you know, that’s a very positive thing. And let me ask JW about that. What chance is there that those released prisoners will stay out of jail?

AUGUST: I think the recidivism rate is pretty high. Part of the problem is probation (sic), I think. Probation is – they just – Everybody that goes through prison goes onto probation. A guy doing one year, he misses an appointment with his probation officer, his PO, and maybe he ticks his PO off and then the next thing you know he’s back in prison, he’s doing a couple more years. I think that’s what he’s referring to. You know, you – he went to jail for shoplifting, now he’s going to do – you know, he ends up doing eight, ten years because he keeps going back out and missing a parole date or sometimes minor infractions and you end up doing hard time.

PENNER: One other question to you, David, you know, a State Department of Corrections report said that 60% released in the past 3 years have returned to jail. Now I’m wondering whether those numbers can be trusted. What interest would the Department of Corrections have in wanting the prison population reduced?

ROLLAND: Well, I don’t know how they – I don’t know the methodology for coming up with the numbers so I can’t say whether it can be trusted or not. I do know that it had been – 70% was the number that everybody used up until recently and the Department of Corrections lowered that to 60%. I did read something yesterday that said somebody, I forgot who it was that was commenting, said that 60% seemed low to him. You know, but what Brian was talking about was what goes on during prison. That’s what I was mentioning before, where it’s really – people are set up to fail both when they’re in, based largely on overcrowding and, like he was talking about, the medical care, and the lack of programs to – set up to help you succeed when you get out, and then when you do get out, the – you’re also set up to fail. It’s harder to get – You can’t get a job. You know, it’s difficult to get housing. You know, and it sort of forces you into sort of self preservation and sometimes that’s criminal behavior.

PENNER: Just very quickly, I remember in 2006, San Diego County participated in SB618. I remembered, finally, the number. It was a state program to reduce recidivism by mentoring inmates from the day of their arrest to 18 months after they were paroled. They get alcohol, drug abuse programs, they get vocational programs. It trains them for being on the outside. But it seems to me I haven’t heard much about these programs lately. Statewide, I don’t know if they’re still in existence. Does anybody know?

AUGUST: I know we did a story some time ago about some women in the program.

PENNER: Uh-huh.

AUGUST: But I don’t know anything about gross numbers or anything like that.


ROLLAND: No, they’re – And within the – with the recent budget cuts, those programs are being cut way down. And the problem is it – that, to my mind, is a smart investment. I mean, when you’re talking about – Obviously, when you’re talking about not having, you know, very much, you know, tax revenue to go around in the state for all your programs, you’ve got to make choices and you’ve got set priorities. But this is the kind of thing that is an investment in the future so you don’t have to pay more down the road.

PENNER: Okay, we are just about out of time but I would like to take one more call in. Sharon, I’m going to ask you to be brief because we’ve really kind of run over our time on this subject. Sharon in Chula Vista’s next.

SHARON (Caller, Chula Vista): Hi. I’ll try to be brief. I’ve become involved with prison reform by default. My husband was an employee of R.J.D. I like to say he was the ‘R’ in the CDCR back in, like you said, in 2006 these programs were going on.

PENNER: Excuse me, Sharon…


PENNER: …what is R.J.D.?

SHARON: Oh, I’m sorry. R.J.D. is…

AUGUST: Donovan.

SHARON: …Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility…


SHARON: …the local state prison here in San Diego.

PENNER: Right.

SHARON: It’s also the most sloppiest run because it’s the farthest from Sacramento. I have learned this on the fly because my husband had a heart attack suddenly two and a half years ago. He was not an officer. He rehabilitated inmates on a daily basis. And I’m the first widow in California history to have the courage to see this case through and prove that stress killed him. And my lawyers still have not been paid. I’ve lost my job and I’m losing my house. That’s how strongly I feel that the state prison system needs to be reformed and people are dying, not just inmates, free staff. And the officers’ union has not said boo to me because they know.

PENNER: Oh, Sharon…

SHARON: And I’ve got plenty of stories. It’s – I’ve been trying to talk to people for two and a half years.

PENNER: Well, Sh…

SHARON: I’m just going to keep talking until someone wants to listen to what I know because Senate Bill 618 is a joke.

PENNER: It is a joke. I – I’m…

SHARON: You could balance the state budget on the system if you just take one look at how much money’s being fed down the toilet in that thing. I’ve walked out there. I’ve met inmates. I’ve met teachers because I can, because I don’t work there.

PENNER: Okay, Sharon, I’m going to ask you, leave your phone number with our producer, please, so that if any of our editors want to get in touch with you, they can. And I’m really sorry about your story. It sounds really like a tragedy, and thank you for calling. And about 618, Sharon said it’s a joke. I was pretty impressed with it when I heard the – back three, four years ago. As I said, I have no idea what’s happened to it since. Thank you, Sharon. And now we have to move forward because, you know, we’ve been talking about the prisons and money and, certainly, we’re going to continue talking about that for a long time to come.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.