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NEWS ANALYSIS

Plan would localize prison system

May 21, 2008|Michael Rothfeld | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The proposed settlement of a state prison overcrowding lawsuit would require a major shift in the way Californians view prisons, one that would demand that local communities see themselves as stakeholders.

The draft agreement in federal court, details of which were released Monday, would divert from state prison tens of thousands of offenders convicted of new crimes or found to have violated their parole. They would be watched over in their home communities by local probation or state parole agents.

But that would require local government to expand programs to treat those offenders or to create alternatives to incarceration, and allow new facilities in their backyards.

In recent decades, state lawmakers and initiatives supported by voters went the opposite way, building more prisons in remote areas and stiffening penalties that increased the number of people housed in them.

"Most of what is envisioned here involves much more community collaboration than has ever happened in California," said Joan Petersilia, a criminologist at UC Irvine. "For this to work, California citizens will have to step up in a way they never have before."

The parties in the court case, which is now before a three-judge federal panel, are reviewing the settlement proposed by two court-appointed mediators. The proposal was based on negotiations involving state officials, lawyers for inmates, Republican state lawmakers and local law enforcement officials across the state. The parties have until next week to accept or reject it.

Under the deal, the state would have until the end of 2011 to reduce the state prison population by a number to be agreed upon in consultation with experts. If the case should proceed to trial instead, the three-judge panel would determine whether to cap the state prison population and order a release of inmates.

The underpinning of the proposed settlement is a greater focus in state prisons on the most serious criminals, while giving less risky offenders the tools and opportunities they need to turn their lives around in their own communities.

That idea has been discussed by many experts in California for decades, and it has been tried in fits and starts. Four decades ago, the state began giving counties funding for juvenile offenders who were kept locally, but the money eventually dried up. In 1994, state lawmakers approved a similar mechanism for "community corrections," but it was barely funded.

Experts and some state and local officials said Tuesday that the amount of funding the state would allocate to local governments, which has not been determined, would be key to the plan. Criminals could be given treatment or other alternatives to state prison such as electronic home monitoring or short stints in county jails. Many jails, such as those in Los Angeles County, are already packed.

"I think some places will be more able to do this than others," said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit group in Oakland. "We need to increase the capacity of probation and the sheriffs to manage people at the local level. Otherwise we're just pushing people around from one bucket to another."

Lance Corcoran, a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the state prison guards' union, said that relying on localities might be premature, when many rural areas, such as Fresno or Butte counties, don't have the kinds of programs that are available in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And he questioned whether they would work.

"The notion that 58 counties can do it better, I think, is misguided," Corcoran said. "And I think there may be an impact on public safety."

But state Sen. Michael Machado (D-Linden), who presides over the corrections portion of the state budget, said the plan shows "tremendous progress" by offering concrete steps to alleviate the crisis in the state prisons. He said communities will have to deal with those criminals at some point, anyway.

"So the question comes back, do you want to have somebody to meet them there at the bus depot and put them in a program?" he asked. "Or do you want them to walk two blocks and get their fix?"

Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco, who is a party to the court case, said he agreed with the notion of rehabilitation, but his main concern is with what the state will provide: "Where's the beef? Where's the resources, the staff, the money?. . . . They need to spell that out and they need to agree to it. Otherwise it's just a promise, and promises don't rehabilitate criminals."

There is also the question of whether communities would accept offenders who might not serve time in state prison. Pacheco said he might not object to a settlement that allows those who violate parole to receive alternatives to prison, but he would not approve if those convicted of new crimes were able to avoid prison.

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