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With No Room at the Prison, What Is the Alternative?

November 29, 1998|Gwynnae Byrd | Gwynnae Byrd is principal consultant to the Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Construction and Operations

SACRAMENTO — Last year, construction of the state's 33rd prison was completed. No other new prisons have been authorized, although the California Corrections Department has concluded that, at the inmate population's current rate of growth, it will need at least 15 new ones in the next eight years. There is strong indication, however, that, although they want criminals locked up, voters are unwilling to put the state deeper into debt to house them. Since 1990, they have continually rejected ballot measures authorizing the issuance of general-obligation bonds for prison construction.

This puts California in a quandary. Based on the corrections department's population projections, the nation's largest prison system, with 159,000 inmates, will run out of beds by midyear 2000. There is no plan to describe how the limited prison beds would be allocated or which inmates would become eligible for early release. Do we continue down the same path that has led us to build 21 prisons in the past 15 years at a cost exceeding $4.5 billion, plus $4 billion a year to operate them? Or do we look to alternatives, with a view toward reducing recidivism and thereby ultimately reducing costs?

The recidivism rate in California is an alarmingly high 70%. About two-thirds of the parolees return to prison because of a parole violation; 14% of them commit a new crime. For example, of the 133,000 inmates admitted to prison in fiscal year 1996-97, 49,000 were newly sentenced and 18,000 were parolees incarcerated for a new crime. The remainder were considered "technical" parole violators, who, at any given time, constitute about 17% of the state's prison population. On average, they are serving 12 months or less. The cost: Taxpayers are spending close to half a billion dollars a year ($22,000 per inmate per year) to lock people up for missing appointments with their parole officers, failing urine tests or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

About 90% of the adult inmates in California are serving determinate sentences. As a result, at least 90% of them will eventually be back on the streets, regardless of the best efforts to keep them behind bars. The challenge for California, in the wake of its bed-space crisis, is how to deal with these people in terms of public safety and fiscal responsibility. Two research reports released this year provide some direction.

In January, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University released a report on substance abuse and the prison population. The report found that drug and alcohol abuse and addiction are implicated in 80% of the crimes committed across the country and that substance abuse is "tightly associated with recidivism." Furthermore, it linked a dramatic increase in the number of women incarcerated to increased sentences for drug use and possession and domestic-violence-related crimes. The report noted that, contrary to conventional wisdom, a legal substance, alcohol, was used more often in the commission of violent crimes than were illegal substances such as crack, cocaine or heroin.

The report's significance lies in its empirical support for the efficacy of substance-abuse treatment. An investment in treatment, the report said, can make a dramatic difference in societal costs related to crime and imprisonment. To quote from the report: "The cost of proven treatment for inmates, accompanied by appropriate education, job training and health care, would average about $6,500 per year. For each inmate who successfully completes such treatment and becomes a taxpaying, law-abiding citizen, the annual economic benefit to society--in terms of avoided incarceration and health-care costs, salary earned, taxes paid and contribution to the economy--is $68,000, a ten-fold return on investment in the first year." Thus, even if substance-abuse programs in prison achieved a 10% success rate, they would pay for themselves in the first year.

A second report, by the Little Hoover Commission and also released last January, arrived at similar conclusions and added some. It noted that 70% of California's parolees are unemployed, 85% are substance abusers, 60% lack basic survival skills, 50% are illiterate and 10% are homeless. Such statistics help explain why the recidivism rate is so high in California. Their implications for juvenile-delinquency and youth-crime rates are also evident, since children of parolees probably live with a single parent in a poor household.

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