SACRAMENTO — Until California eases prison overcrowding, it can't slow the revolving prison doors that return roughly 70% of freed inmates within a year, national experts reported to the Legislature on Friday.
Their analysis of why California is among the worst in the nation at keeping ex-convicts out of prison concludes that jam-packed conditions prevent prison officials from offering drug and alcohol addiction treatment, anger management classes and job training -- steps to help keep felons from committing more crimes.
The Legislature requested the report last year. It comes days after two federal judges blamed overcrowding for abysmal medical and mental healthcare in the state's prisons and indicated they were willing to move toward capping the inmate population.
The 16-member panel of rehabilitation experts faults California for giving prisoners and parolees little incentive to behave.
They recommend that wardens subtract time from the sentences of compliant inmates. They also suggest using nominal payments -- such as the 8 cents to 95 cents an hour inmates can earn for working -- to encourage people to complete classes, as well as offering expanded family visiting privileges, long-distance phone calls and vouchers at prison stores as rewards.
Parolees could get an early discharge for repaying victims, holding jobs or staying off drugs, they suggest.
"There are very few incentives, so inmates and parolees who participate in programs don't necessarily get out earlier or get off parole earlier, and that's unlike many other states," said panel co-chairperson Joan Petersilia, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections at UC Irvine.
Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California, agreed that prisoners should have rehabilitation programs. But she took umbrage at the notion of letting inmates out early for completing them.
"They still have to serve their time," she said. Otherwise, "you're allowing them to manipulate the system."
If California were to follow all of the report's recommendations, according to the authors, the state could eventually save between $561 million and $684 million a year on a reduced inmate population.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director James Tilton embraced the report. He says that he doesn't have the money in his budget to do all it suggests but that he intends to launch pilot programs in a few prisons to prove that targeted rehabilitation programs work.
The public assumes, Tilton said, that "inmates go to prison, they sit on a bunk out in the desert somewhere and never come back."
"That's not the facts," he said. "People come back. Over 90% of these inmates come back to communities.... And we can do a better job."
The report's authors portray the state's $7-billion prison system as a lousy investment for taxpayers, with one of the highest rates of criminals returning to prison. They blame lawmakers and voters who for the last 30 years have passed laws that locked up more people for longer terms without helping criminals change their behavior.
They point to recent data showing that of the $43,287 that the state spends on each inmate each year, almost 50% is spent on security while 5% goes toward such efforts as teaching them to read or get a job.
According to the department, nearly half of all California prisoners released last year were not assigned to any rehabilitation programs or given jobs.
The authors of the report include current and former officials of prison systems in Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Washington state; James Gomez, who oversaw California prisons in the 1990s; Mark Carey, president of the American Probation and Parole Assn.; and several academic researchers. Marisela Montes, a chief deputy secretary with the prisons department, chaired the panel.
The report's top recommendation was to ease overcrowding. There are more than 170,000 inmates in California prisons designed for 100,000, with roughly 17,000 of them housed in classrooms, gyms and other spaces that could be used for rehabilitation efforts. Overcrowding also hinders education by triggering frequent lockdowns, in which prisoners are confined to their beds and classes are canceled.
At a news conference Friday, panel members said the quickest way to ease overcrowding would be to revamp parole policies that send thousands back to prison for brief stays for technical parole violations such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with a parole officer.
"It's bad policy," said panel member Joseph Lehman, a retired director of prison systems in Maine, Washington state and Pennsylvania. It's better to see if there's a connection between a parole violation and past criminal behavior, he said, and decide whether an inmate should return to prison or get help finding housing or drug treatment.
Sen. Michael Machado (D-Linden) requested the analysis of California's rehabilitation programs last year as part of the state's annual spending bill. On Friday he said an independent analysis of sentencing laws was needed.
"Many states have done this and done it successfully without putting the public in danger," Machado said. "I think it's something we need to embrace posthaste."