California Needs a New Clemency System

Posted on 24 December 2008

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allen-jones.jpgby Allen Jones

In 2003 California’s prison population was 162,000 adult inmates. The cost of the system at that time was just under $6 billion. Today’s California’s prison population is 170,000 adult inmates and the cost is over $12 billion according to published reports.

As a laymen, on paper that looks like an average cost of $6 billion to incarcerate the last eight thousand inmates in the last five years.

If the federal judges in position to rule over the latest overcrowding lawsuit ruled that eight thousand inmates should be released that won’t save $6 billion. Nor will the release of “50 thousand” prisoners which are the demands of the plaintiffs in this federal case cut our prison cost in half or solve this problem with no plan in place for services to help these newly released prisoners.

However, as I look at the list of the latest presidential pardons by President Bush I see a solution to California’s prison overcrowding problem. A way to cut our prison population in half and to prevent the state from ever being overcrowded again with little or no risk to public safety is possible by allowing concerned citizens handle all clemency requests.

President Bush just granted pardons for persons convicted of “Counterfeiting, embezzling, human trafficking, forgery, defrauding and even several individuals convicted of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute marijuana.”

These people, some who are already in our communities are NONVIOLENT. I too have my own list of NONVIOLENT persons in need of a pardon. But there are thousands of people currently sitting in our state prisons who do not need to be there. A plan to select and release these prisoners with no current services to catch inmates is a must. Or we just pay police overtime as they catch those released by court order on new charges.

Neither Governor Schwarzenegger nor the California legislature is prepared for a judge’s order to release thousands of prisoners from our overcrowded prison system. And if an order is made the appeal alone will only delay the inevitable release of thousands of prisoners. We can avoid the tragedy of possibly releasing the wrong inmate by developing a safe new system of releasing qualified NONVIOLENT prisoners as the president did.

Californians need to wake up to the fact that a pardon is the most powerful tool in the criminal justice system. Just ask Marc Rich, a billionaire whose federal indictment for income tax evasion sent him hiding in Switzerland until the President Clinton granted him a pardon. But if a new clemency (pardon) system was created by the legislature or by a constitutional amendment passed by the voters we could reverse our prison system and give more deserving individuals another chance.

How a new clemency system could work in California is simple. Create a clemency panel in every one of the 58 counties of the state consisting of no more than five citizens from that county. These clemency panels would rule on clemency request of NONVIOLENT prisoners who qualify under established guidelines. Under current law anyone can ask for a pardon. But under this new law only NONVIOLENT inmates could request a pardon if the prison system is over capacity or the prisoner meets other criteria.

The most likely panel members would be registered voters or those who have served on a criminal jury in that county in the past twelve months who could be paid $100 a day for their service and they would be randomly selected as is with the current jury selection process. This is far more than the $12.00 I received for my last one day service.

This $100.00 incentive to sit on a clemency board could also help prevent jury dodging. But a closer examination of a paid clemency service will find it to be less than the current parole budget and has far more benefits including cutting the cost of the parole process which was called “A billion dollar failure” by The Little Hoover Commission in a 2002 report.

These benefits also include saving billions in incarceration cost eliminating prison overcrowding by having the clemency boards and prison officials working together to monitor prison population levels and eliminate the need to build new prisons as an answer to more prisoners. A new prison should only be built to replace an outdated one that has become unsafe for the inmates and staff.

When we attempt to solve our overcrowded prison system we must keep in mind the public’s safety first. But I can’t think of anything more dangerous than allowing a three judge panel to say “Let 50 thousand prisoners go free” with nowhere to go.

A new clemency system designed to have an orderly release of NONVIOLENT inmates is a must and would offer a better plan to assist the counties who must take in these prisoners once they are released.

Current law offers less than $2,000.00 per inmate for rehabilitative services and I’m willing to bet most of that is swallowed up in administration cost. But a new clemency process can offer compensation of $8000.00 per released NONVIOLENT inmate to the county for rehabilitative services. This is far more than the current prison budget for rehabilitative services but far less than the $35,000.00 cost to incarcerate one NONVIOLENT inmate.

Allen Jones is a prison reform activist of 20 years. He lives in San Francisco and his new clemency plan can be viewed at: