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The traps of early release

As California faces an order to reduce its prison population by more than 55,000, an expert talks about what the state should do before opening the cell doors.

February 22, 2009|Sara Catania

Earlier this month, a panel of three federal judges issued a tentative ruling that California must reduce its state prison population by more than 55,000 to relieve intense overcrowding and poor medical and mental health care.

If the order holds, the state will have to figure out how to release prisoners on a scale never before seen. Joan Petersilia, professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine and the author of "When Prisoners Come Home," spoke about the ruling and its potential effects with Opinion page contributor Sara Catania. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Is there a precedent for an early release of this magnitude?

Never on the scale we're talking about here. The most dramatic example occurred in Illinois in the 1980s, when the state released 1,200 people early.

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Did crime increase as a result?

No, but there are crucial differences in the circumstances of the Illinois release and the proposed California release. In Illinois, the total number of prisoners released was a fraction of what we're looking at for California. The Illinois numbers were low enough that if all the released prisoners were rearrested, it probably wouldn't affect the state's overall reported crime rate. Illinois also had some ability to limit releases to lower-level offenders.

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Do you think early release can work in California?

I'm in favor of early release at a lesser level. I think we could safely release 15,000 to 18,000 prisoners. That would include very low-level technical parole violators, the elderly and low-level drug offenders. Nearly everyone who has studied this issue recommends removing less serious parole violators from state prisons.

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How does the poor economy affect early release?

In two primary ways. First of all, whether you are conservative or liberal, everyone agrees that we don't want to be spending $46,000 a year to house a prisoner who represents no public safety risk when it takes about $12,000 a year to fund a really good community-based program for that person.

Unfortunately, the services these former prisoners would need revolve primarily around substance-abuse treatment, and those are exactly the programs that are being cut. Limited early release is a good idea, but it could not be happening at a worse time. Just opening up prison doors and releasing 55,000 prisoners with no preparation is harsh to the offender and dangerous to the public.

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Is there an early release approach that might mitigate the fallout?

Yes. In 1994, California's Legislature created the Community-Based Punishment Act. It was never funded, but now people are talking about reactivating it. Under the act, if you've got prison-bound parole violators and you're willing to keep them locally rather than sending them to state prison, you get a kickback from the state to pay for programs to ease their reentry into society. This approach could include short-term incarceration, intensive supervision, house arrest with electronic monitoring, enrollment in a work-release program, day reporting and mandatory substance-abuse treatment.

In our prisons, the overcrowding crisis is caused by parole violators returning to prison. Every year, we send some 70,000 parolees back to prison, about 30,000 of those from L.A. County alone. Most serve two to three months. Everybody knows this revolving door does not protect the public and in fact puts it at greater risk. These are the lower-level people who may have been in drug treatment, may have found a job and housing. When you send them back to prison, you break those connections and destabilize them. A few months later, they're back on the street and expected to start all over again.

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You recommend a far more limited early release than the one being proposed. Is it possible to do the release right with four times as many prisoners than you recommend?

No, not with the way California currently operates its prison and parole system. If we start releasing prisoners in such high numbers, those who are released are bound to include prisoners with lengthy criminal histories and violence in their backgrounds.

The best way we can reduce the risk these more serious prisoners represent is to transfer them from prison to intensive residential reentry facilities, or perhaps to electronic monitoring and house arrest. Once there, parole agents and community providers would need to closely monitor the prisoners' behavior and try to interest them in rehabilitation and work training. Simply releasing this larger group of prisoners without the necessary housing and services is asking for more crime.

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Is anyone talking about how to pay for the community approach, or are already overworked probation and parole officers just going to have bigger caseloads?

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