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Tough on corrections

The state prison system is bursting, forcing GOP law-and-order policies to collide with anti-tax positions.

August 03, 2009

Sensational crimes are often followed by get-tough-on-crime legislation, especially in a state where systems that promote direct democracy encourage headline-based lawmaking. Hence the passage of Megan's Law, named after 7-year-old murder victim Megan Kanka, by the Legislature in 2004. Or Jessica's Law, overwhelmingly approved by California voters in 2006 following the rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

Lily Burk might not have a law named after her, but the 17-year-old's abduction and murder, allegedly at the hands of a parolee who was living at a local drug-treatment center, has political ramifications. That's because it comes at a time when lawmakers are considering cuts to the state prison budget that could mean early release for more than 27,000 inmates. With the Legislature returning later this month to work out the specifics of cutting $1.2 billion from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's budget, Burk's name will almost certainly be invoked by police unions and Republicans who oppose reducing the prison population to save money -- even though they also oppose raising taxes to support the current population.

California had a prison crisis long before this year's budget crisis. A system designed for fewer than 100,000 inmates is crammed with about 170,000. The overcrowding has made prison conditions so miserable, especially when it comes to medical care, that federal judges have ruled that the state is violating inmates' constitutional rights. As a result, the prison health system is under the oversight of a federal receiver, and a three-judge panel might soon order steep cuts in the inmate population.

How did things get so bad? To a large degree, it's because of the natural public sympathy for victims such as Megan, Jessica, Polly Klaas and, now, Lily Burk. Outrage over high-profile crimes starting in the mid-1970s led to a host of laws that sent the prison population soaring and assured that many of those who had done their time would quickly bounce back behind bars.

California has taken much sentencing discretion away from judges, forcing them to set terms based on a schedule of crimes and enhancements. Most inmates serve their full terms, and all are placed on parole for three years. This system fails to classify convicts based on the danger they pose to the public. The prisons are stuffed with nonviolent offenders, and parole officers' caseloads are enormous, making it very hard to focus attention on truly high-risk individuals. This is the only state to combine determinate sentencing with such a rigorous parole system, and it's not coincidental that it has the nation's highest recidivism rate.

The folly of these and other state corrections policies has been clear for more than a decade. Experts have filed studies and reports by the dozen identifying solutions to the overcrowding crisis, yet they've been ignored by politicians worried that fixing the prisons might be seen by voters as coddling criminals. If there's one good outcome from California's budget woes, it's that they might force lawmakers to institute reforms that should have happened years ago.

One such reform is being embraced by the Schwarzenegger administration. Its plan for cutting the corrections budget calls for permanent changes in parole supervision -- only offenders with a history of serious, violent or sex crimes, or who are considered high-risk, would go on "active" parole. Nonviolent felons wouldn't be supervised, and they couldn't be returned to prison for a technical violation. This would allow parole officers to focus on truly dangerous ex-convicts while cutting the prison population and saving taxpayer money.

Yet this idea, along with another administration proposal to allow low-risk offenders to serve the last 12 months of their sentences under house arrest or in community rehabilitation centers with satellite monitoring, will probably attract the noisiest opposition, especially from Republicans. That's where the heartbreaking case of Lily Burk comes in. Charles Samuel, the man accused of abducting and killing the Los Feliz teen, was placed in a drug-treatment center after violating the terms of his parole. Wouldn't the governor's proposal end supervision for such felons?

Actually, no. Because of his extensive criminal history, Samuel would have been on active parole even under the proposed changes. But that's not the only reason lawmakers should resist setting prison policy based on a single, well-publicized crime. Although it's understandable to seek solutions that would protect others, no system can make society 100% safe from deranged individuals. There's reason to believe a risk-based parole system would actually decrease overall crime rates in California because it would free up resources to focus on the most dangerous criminals.

That's not to say we're thrilled by the prospect of 27,000 inmates being released early and all at once. Unfortunately, though, there is a dearth of good alternatives.

Republicans are working on a plan for managing the $1.2 billion in corrections cuts without wide-scale early releases, but they find themselves in an almost impossible bind. They're reportedly looking to eliminate prison vocational and drug-treatment programs, an idea that's not only glaringly shortsighted -- such a move is guaranteed to increase recidivism and further boost the prison population -- but would save only $475 million. There is no realistic way to cut in excess of 10% from the corrections budget without reducing the inmate population.

The real problem for California conservatives is that two of their key policy positions -- inflexible opposition to tax hikes and tough penalties for criminals -- are contradictory. Housing inmates isn't cheap, and it's inconsistent to pass laws that cram the prisons while turning down measures to pay for them.

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