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Cutting California's prison rolls

The mistaken release of violent felons shows it won't be easy. But it doesn't have to lead to more crime.

May 27, 2011
  • Too many inmates: Extra bunk beds have been added at California's Mule Creek State Prison. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Too many inmates: Extra bunk beds have been added at California's…

As some commentators — and some rightward-leaning justices on the U.S. Supreme Court — would have it, it's time for Californians to lock their doors and bar their windows, because the court's majority this week upheld a federal court order for the Golden State to shed more than 30,000 inmates from its prison population within two years. But are "terrible things sure to happen" as a result of the ruling, as Justice Antonin Scalia stated in his dissenting opinion? A report released Wednesday by the state's inspector general makes Scalia's words look prophetic, yet crime statistics suggest such fears may be groundless.

Amid the media attention focused on the Supreme Court ruling Monday, little notice was paid to the fact that California has already taken important steps to reduce its prison population, and they didn't result in pandemonium in the streets. From an average of about 158,000 inmates in 2009, the system now holds about 143,000, largely because of reforms approved by the Legislature a year and a half ago.

Now, rather than automatically placing every released convict on parole, the state assesses inmates' risk of reoffending and places nonviolent criminals deemed at low risk on "non-revocable parole." This means they aren't supervised and can only be sent back to prison for a new felony, not simply for violating the terms of their parole. It was a smart reform that reduced the prison rolls while also freeing up parole officers to focus on genuinely dangerous ex-cons.

But according to the inspector general, it has a glitch: The computer tool used to assess inmate risk is flawed. State inspectors sampled a list of inmates placed on non-revocable parole in July 2010 and found that 15% of them shouldn't have been eligible. As a result, they estimated that in the first seven months of the program, 450 violent offenders were improperly released. Corrections officials say many of the problems identified last July have been fixed, but the inspector general estimates the error rate is still 8%. That's too high for comfort.

Some of the problems with the state's assessment tool, which looks at an inmate's criminal background and behavior in custody, can be remedied with relative ease, while other fixes might require money that lawmakers are ill-prepared to invest in the midst of a budget crisis. Either way, the inspector general's report shows that even the best-designed prison depopulation scheme can go wrong — and potentially endanger the public — if it's poorly implemented.

News of the database glitches is likely to reduce public confidence that California can comply with the order to cut its prison population to 110,000 without sparking a crime wave. After all, if the state isn't sure who's dangerous, how can it possibly decide which inmates should remain in custody? Current plans call for shifting tens of thousands of nonviolent convicts from state prisons to county jails, but how can we be sure that corrections officials won't send truly dangerous felons to the counties? Before this happens, every step possible must be taken to improve the state's systems for classifying prisoners.

Worrisome as the inspector general's report is, it doesn't tell us anything about the impact of prison cuts on crime. With fewer felons in custody, is the public less safe? Not necessarily, according to recent statistics.

State and federal agencies this week released figures showing that crime rates fell significantly in 2010, following a similarly big drop in 2009. The falling numbers (violent crime was down 5.5%, according to the FBI, and property crimes fell 2.8%) are a puzzle to criminal justice experts because they contradict the long-held notion that crime rises in times of economic decline and high joblessness. But they contradict something else as well: The idea, suggested by Scalia and others, that smaller prison populations result in greater lawlessness.

The percentage of Americans behind bars has been falling for years, and last year the Pew Center on the States noted that the total population of state prisons in the U.S. had declined in 2009 for the first time since 1972. Some of that drop resulted from the drop in crime (if fewer people are breaking the law, you'd expect to have fewer people in prison), but another key factor identified by the Pew center was that many states, under budgetary and other pressures, took responsible steps to find alternatives for nonviolent offenders. For example, Michigan cut its prison population by 6,000 over the course of three years, mainly by revising its parole rules. Texas halted its rapid prison growth by investing in community treatment and diversion programs. And Mississippi, like California, reduced recidivism by coming up with a new tool for assessing the risk of reoffending posed by parolees.

The biggest cuts in the prison rolls, though, occurred in the Golden State — whose crime rate dropped significantly at the same time. According to preliminary figures released this week by the California Department of Justice, violent crimes fell 6.4% in 2010 and the murder rate plunged 9.6%.

This doesn't necessarily predict what will happen after 33,000 inmates are trimmed from California's prisons — no state has tried such a radical shift before. And no one can say for sure that last year's prison population cuts didn't result in more crimes (maybe violent crime would have dropped even more if not for the parole reforms). But it does show that there's not an automatic connection between reduced incarceration and increased crime. It's not going to be easy for California to bring its prisons up to the minimal standards required under the Constitution without endangering the public, but it is possible.

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