The Case for Prop 47, Other States’ Lessons on Reducing Prison Pop., a Mentally Ill Diversion Program for LA County, and Gov. Brown Signs Ex-Inmate Job Training Grant BillSeptember 18th, 2014 by Taylor Walker
NEWT GINGRICH AND B. WAYNE HUGHES JR ENDORSE PROP 47, CALL ON CALIFORNIA TO TAKE NOTES FROM THE RED STATES
Proposition 47, which will appear on the November 4 ballot, would reduce certain offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, keeping people who have committed low-level drug and property crimes out of lock-up and under better-suited supervision and treatment. (A report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice estimates $175 million in savings for LA County, if voters pass Prop 47.)
Contributing to the growth in the number of prisoners and in prison spending has been a dramatic expansion in the number of felonies. In addition, mandatory minimum sentences have been applied to an increasing number of crimes. These policies have combined to drive up the prison population, as more prisoners serve longer sentences. On top of that, California has an alarmingly high recidivism rate: Six out of 10 people exiting California prisons return within three years.
It makes no sense to send nonserious, nonviolent offenders to a place filled with hardened criminals and a poor record of rehabilitation — and still expect them to come out better than they went in. Studies show that placing low-risk offenders in prison makes them more dangerous when they are released.
Over-incarceration makes no fiscal sense. California spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, and $10 billion overall, on its corrections system. That is larger than the entire state budget of 12 other states. This expenditure might be worth it if we were safer because of it. But with so many offenders returning to prison, we clearly aren’t getting as much public safety — or rehabilitation — as we should for this large expenditure.
Most notably, Texas in 2007 stopped prison expansion plans and instead used those funds for probation and treatment. It has reduced its prison population, closed three facilities and saved billions of dollars, putting a large part of the savings into drug treatment and mental health services. Better yet, Texas’ violent crime rates are the lowest since 1977.
Another red state, South Carolina, made similar reforms for nonviolent offenses. The drop in the number of prisoners allowed South Carolina to close one prison and also lower its recidivism rate. Other states (Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi) have similarly shifted their approach to nonviolent convictions.
Now voters in California will have a chance to do the same, using costly prison beds for dangerous and hardened criminals. It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on locking up low-level offenders. Proposition 47 on the November ballot will do this by changing six nonviolent, petty offenses from felony punishments (which now can carry prison time) to misdemeanor punishments and local accountability.
The measure is projected to save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year, and it will help the state emphasize punishments such as community supervision and treatment that are more likely to work instead of prison time.
AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC…
The folks over at Zócalo asked five criminal justice experts what California can learn by example from other states who have successfully reduced their prison populations. Here’s what Lois M. Davis, a RAND Corporation senior policy researcher, had to say about Washington state, and its success with making rehabilitation high priority.
California’s experiment in public safety realignment is being credited with closing the revolving door that keeps low-level offenders cycling through the state prison system by housing them instead in county jails and providing counties funding and flexibility to provide for these inmates. Currently the state’s 58 counties are doing their own experiments to determine how much of the realignment resources should be devoted to rehabilitative programs. But reducing California’s prison population over the long term will require the state to provide rehabilitative services like education that reduce recidivism and help to turn individuals’ lives around once they return to communities.
California can learn a great deal from the state of Washington, which has implemented a series of reforms focused on rehabilitation—on diverting offenders to treatment and other options and making serving time in prison the last option. The logic for this is clear: Analyses by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy show that cognitive-behavioral programs for adult offenders in prison and community settings can be expected to reduce recidivism rates by 6.3 percent, on average.
RAND’s recent national study on correctional education shows that adult offenders who participated in prison education programs reduced their risk of recidivating by 43 percent. Every $1 invested in these programs resulted in about $4 to $5 in savings in re-incarceration costs. Beyond the stark economic benefits is the broader incentive that such rehabilitation is good for society as a whole. As a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences indicated, mass incarceration is associated with negative social and economic outcomes, which make it very difficult for ex-offenders to turn their lives around when they return, disproportionately, to disadvantaged communities.
California took a bold step in implementing the Public Safety Realignment Act. Now it should move beyond realignment to focus on rehabilitation.
Head over to Zócalo for for more lessons from other states, including a tip California can take from 45 other states, and something the state can learn from itself.
A RELATIVELY SMALL BUT PROMISING LA COUNTY PROBATION PROGRAM TO DIVERT MENTALLY ILL FROM JAIL
On Wednesday, LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced a small pilot program to divert homeless, mentally ill people charged with low-level offenses from jail. To start with, the program will target 50 participants in Van Nuys, but both Yaroslavsky and Lacey both say they would like to see the program expanded county-wide.
KPCC’s Rina Palta has more on the program. Here’s a clip:
“We want to demonstrate that it works, demonstrate that it saves money, we want to demonstrate better outcomes for the individuals in the program,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said at a press conference.
L.A.’s county jails are overcrowded with mentally ill offenders, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office. Earlier this year, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a $1.8 billion jail overhaul plan that includes building a new downtown jail to house mostly inmates with serious mental illnesses.
The new diversion program will offer chronically homeless men and women an alternative to jail when they’re initially charged with a misdemeanor or low-level felony. Those who opt to participate will be sent to the San Fernando Community Mental Health Center and, if needed, placed in subsidized housing. They’ll also receive mental health and employment services.
But it’s limited to 50 participants at a time and only in Van Nuys. It’s expected to cost approximately $750,000, funded partially by the county and partially through a federal grant.
Palta has a second interesting Los Angeles Probation story, along with Karen Foshay, regarding an alarming number dubious worker’s compensation claims filed by Probation Dept. staff. Here’s a small clip from the opening:
KPCC reviewed hundreds of Probation Department workers’ compensation files from 2010-2012 and found dozens of questionable cases, including workers spending months away from the job after getting spider bites or tripping in parking lots, or falling out of chairs.
Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers stresses that the vast majority of workers’ compensation claims are legitimate, but he has taken several steps to crack down on questionable injuries since taking office in 2011. Since then, the number of probation staff on disability has dropped by one third, Powers says.
GOV. BROWN SIGNS BILL CREATING A GRANT PROGRAM TO GIVE JOB TRAINING TO EX-INMATES
For more on the bill, Assemblymember Perez has this update from June when the bill passed through the Senate Public Safety Committee. Here’s a clip:
“Workforce training for the re-entry population is a practical strategy for improving access to a stable job,” said Pérez. “It helps improve offender outcomes, reduces the likelihood of recidivism, and promotes community safety and stability.”
Specifically, the bill establishes a new competitive grant program for workforce training for the re-entry population. The grant program would be administered by the California Workforce Investment Board and would be available to counties on a competitive basis, with greater consideration for those that provide matching funds, have demonstrated collaborative working relationship with local workforce investment boards, and/or have a workforce training program for the reentry population already in place.
To fund the program, Pérez secured $1 million in the 2014-15 Budget Act, which will be appropriated through the state’s the Recidivism Reduction Fund.