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The traps of early release

BACKGROUNDER

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

There is a lot of discussion going on in Sacramento about how to fund "intermediate sanctions" to be used instead of sending someone back to prison. If a prisoner who violates parole, for example, no longer returns to prison but remains in the community, who is responsible for his surveillance and services? We can't ignore their parole failures because often those failures are a signal that the parolee is slipping. Other states have used intermediate sanctions, such as those described in the Community-Based Punishment Act. But in order to employ this model, we have to provide money to counties to expand these types of intermediate sanctions. If we can transfer the state prisoner to a community-based program, we save money -- and perhaps more important, provide services that might actually help the prisoner stay out of crime in the long run -- which, of course, saves even more money.

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Even if early release went according to the best possible plan, there will still be the same number of cells and the same level of administration. Will there really be much in the way of savings inside prisons?

No, we won't see any cost savings immediately. If prisoners are released, the remaining prisoners will simply spread out so as to not be as crowded, thereby satisfying the court's requirements.

Of the $46,000 we spend a year to house a prisoner in California, $2,500 goes to food and clothing, $9,000 goes to healthcare and $2,000 goes toward education and employment training to prepare the inmate for release. That's a total of $13,500 per prisoner. More than two-thirds of the cost of housing an inmate in California goes toward security and operations, making the overall cost of housing a prisoner in California the highest in the nation. There are no plans to close prisons any time soon, so the cost of running the prison system will remain rather unchanged for quite some time.

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If the early release order is enacted on the scale proposed, there is a risk of a high level of recidivism, which carries a hefty price tag. In the end, will any money be saved?

The key to all of this -- the real money -- is in the California prisons, to the tune of $10 billion a year. If we're to solve the state's prison crisis, we've got to figure out how to shift some of that away from state prisons and into local programs. If we don't, we're setting the system up for failure.

Without sufficient financial support, we're going to release these people and they're going to fail. You'll wind up with another victim, plus the cost of the prisoner's reincarceration. If we don't do this right, all of these people will be back in prison. We will have saved in the short term, but the long-term consequences will be huge.

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