Ammiano Seeks New Moral Compass for California's "Failed" Prisons
By Dan Aiello
In the wake of California's election last month where voters passed two propositions aimed at reducing the number of inmates in California's overcrowded prison system, the State Assembly's Safety Committee Chair says he will introduce major prison reform this session targeting a correctional system failure rate that persists as the highest recidivism rate in the nation.
"With voters approving both propositions 30 and 36, I believe we are in a position to achieve significant prison reform to reduce our failure rate and begin decreasing our prison population," San Francisco Democrat Assembly member Tom Ammiano told the California Progress Report recently.
"It's not going to be easy as the issues that affect our prisons and inmates are complicated and numerous, but I believe we can achieve real reform if we are determined, strategic and remain focused on that goal," Ammiano said.
Proposition 30, along with providing funding to California's educational system, also will provide funding to local jails. These funds are intended to offset the cost city and county jails will incur as a result of the inmate population increases under the realignment plan which Governor Jerry Brown (D) introduced after a Federal court ruled California's overcrowded prison conditions amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment."
Voters also passed proposition 36, amending the state's tough on crime "Three Strikes" law largely attributed with tripling California's inmate population within a few years of its passage. While the "Three Strikes" law was championed by conservative lawmakers, those same politicians opposed all legislation aimed at offsetting the cost to the state for the surge in inmate population that "Three Strikes" produced. As a result, California's existing prisons became grossly overcrowded and increasingly dangerous for inmates. With no hope for a political solution, the state's correctional system remained in crisis until a Federal court intervened last year, forcing state lawmakers to approve a plan to reduce the population.
"Thankfully, prop 36 reduces the number of those eligible for three strikes to only criminals who have committed serious offenses and not something like missing an appointment with a parole officer," stated Ammiano, who said the state's prison population actually began increasing "when Reagan closed the state's mental institutions."
But Ammiano, the legislator who has fiercely sought to decriminalize marijuana while advocating its taxation as a revenue source for state government, said it was the use of state prisons "as our weapon of choice in the wars on drugs, the mentally ill and the homeless - yes its increasingly illegal in this state to be homeless" that was the biggest contributor to a prison population that has until realignment seemed uncontrollable.
"As the state's prison population rose, bad ideas flourished as a result," Ammiano told CPR. "The same attitudes that said, 'let's just build more prisons,' took money away from mental health, educational, vocational and rehab programs offered inside our prisons and outside to parolees."
"Well duh," Ammiano mocked, "we did everything to increase our prison population and the CDCR's failure rate. Why are we surprised?"
In an annual report on the nation's recidivism rates by state, 2012 saw California continue to lead by an increasingly wide margin the percentage of released felons who are re-incarcerated on new charges. The annual recidivism survey comparing how state correctional systems perform at successfully re-integrating their inmates has continued to rank California's correctional system the worst failure rate, and by a large margin.
Just as the performance of the state's educational system is assessed by the number of graduates and their test scores, the recidivism rate of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reflects the system's success at returning inmates to society by providing the percentage of parolees re-incarcerated within three years following their release.
Inmates released from California prisons are at least 20 percent more likely to be arrested and returned to prison then the second worst state, and up to 45% more likely to be back behind bars as their counterparts in the state with the lowest recidivism rate.
While in the past Californians largely blamed the individual for his or her return to prison, such empirical evidence, while not exonerating California inmates of all culpability, does shift the focus of reform efforts away from the incarcerated and toward the correctional and justice systems, including the purpose of incarceration, the experience of those incarcerated and even the crimes for which California has deemed incarceration an appropriate punishment.
"They took the money set aside for programs like Restart aimed at employing the ex-felons and used it to build more capacity for prisoners," said Ammiano, suggesting a high rate of recidivism was the inevitable result of that strategy.
Additionally, Ammiano said that by sending the perpetrators of victimless crimes - such as someone possessing a small amount of marijuana - to overcrowded prisons, Californians inadvertently increased the number of potential felons and repeat offenders, as otherwise crime-naïve individuals were prosecuted for smoking pot and found themselves in highly tense and dangerous overcrowded prisons, which Ammiano referred to as "gladiator academies."
"We've sent otherwise law-abiding citizens to prisons that were essentially gladiator academies, where an inmate is forced to choose between being a victim or victimizing others."
Ammiano, whose legislative record has shown fiscal prudence, pointed out that California's recidivism rate in 1980 was just 32% compared with 71% today. California currently pays more than $72,000 per prisoner per year. Reducing today's prison population by 10% would result in a $233 million dollar per year savings, 20% would result almost a half billion dollar savings to the state's general fund, so Ammiano says it is in the interests of both the fiscal conservative and the progressive politician to support prison reform that results in a smaller prison population, both at the state and county levels.
Assemblyman Ammiano cited a recent international magazine article where San Francisco's Chief of Police pointed out that the City and County of San Francisco's $422 million dollar jail budget had only a few million allocated for parolee re-entry, drug rehabilitation and mental illness programs.
"We need to start moving money toward Restart and other re-entry programs," said Ammiano. "We need to address mental illness as just that, not as crime. It's just not right that we have criminalized being mentally ill in this state. We're smarter than that. We know better about these things now.
"There's no question that our correctional system is a failure," Ammiano told CPR. "Even by comparison to other correctional systems, it's a failure. But the reasons our prisons are failing are beyond their control and I would challenge anyone who would look to blame our prisons, their staff or the staff of the CDCR. The reasons our system is failing are our laws, our budget priorities, our justice system and a host of reasons we need to address that are outside the authority of the CDCR. That's why I intend to introduce legislation to move us forward, further forward than the governor's realignment which has slowly begun to turn the tide on our prison population," said Ammiano.
Assemblyman Ammiano said he plans to visit Pelican Bay, the site of last year's hunger strike by inmates.
Dan Aiello reports for the Bay Area Reporter and California Progress Report.