Fixing California's Mass Incarceration Mess
By Dick Price
As California grapples with a prison system so broken that the U.S. Supreme Court has mandated reductions in the number of prisoners it holds, the three-part "Smart Justice: Rethinking Public Safety in California" discussion begun this past week at the University of Southern California is examining both consequences and possible solutions to the state's mass incarceration mess.
Moderated by Tomás Rivera Policy Institute director Roberto Suro, the first session - titled "California's Corrections Systems and the Lives They Impact" and organized by Californians for Safety and Justice and USC's Students Talk Back program - featured presentations by James Austin, president of the JFA Institute and author of a ground-breaking report on reducing prison populations, Susan Burton, former inmate and founder of the A New Way of Life Reentry Program, and USC graduate students Emily Reisner and Jennifer Moore.
A New Way of Life
"Each time I got out of prison, I was dropped off downtown with no ID, no Social Security card, $200 in my pocket--and no place to go," said Burton, who began her women's re-entry program in 1998 after four stints in California prisons resulting from crack cocaine addiction propelled by her son's death at the hands of a policeman.
"Every time I left prison, I vowed to get my life back on track, but failed," Burton has written. "I did not know the tremendous odds against me." Eventually, with help from a friend, she got set on a better path at the Clare Foundation in Santa Monica.
"I wondered why weren't there resources in South Los Angeles like there were in Santa Monica where I got treatment?" she said this past Wednesday. "Seventy percent of the prison population have substance abuse problems and yet the best we can do is lock them in cages."
Since starting A New Way of Life with first one house and then others, 600 women have gone through Burton's program. While 150 have been reunited with their families, hundreds have been denied reunification. Burton says she gets 20 letters a month from women who hope to come to A New Way of Life once they are paroled, far more than her homes can hold.
"It's really horrible what women in prison and their families have to go through," Burton said, citing the story of Rozelle, who had dreamed for years in prison of the day she could vote in an election.
"Her boyfriend threw her 2-year-old son against the wall and she shot him," Burton said. "And by the time she was released from prison, she couldn't see that son because he had his own life sentence."
Rozelle ultimately died of cancer, still on parole, before she could ever see her son as an adult or fulfill her dream of voting.
"It's hard to watch the horrible situations driving life out of our communities, driving hope out, driving dreams out," Burton observed.
How to Reduce California's Prison Population
"We can solve our prison problems by making punishment commensurate with the crimes, as we did for many years," said James Austin, referring to the large number of inmates in California and across the country incarcerated as part of the War on Drugs for relatively minor drug possession and trafficking infractions.
"It's an easy solution, but you're dealing with big money, big interests," Austin continued, indicating that the vested interests - law enforcement associations, prison guard unions, private prison operators and the politicians they influence in both political parties - fight tooth and nail against what prison reformers consider common sense solutions.
As a common sense example, Austin cited the 25,000 lifers in California who could be paroled, but aren't. "Most are very low risk."
But in 1988, California transferred to the governor the final say in granting parole for all prisoners serving life sentences for murder, which - in this tough-on-crime era - has meant nearly all such parole requests have been denied whether there's a Republican governor or a Democratic one in Sacramento. Arnold Schwarzenegger somewhat and Jerry Brown more dramatically have begun to reverse this trend. Before this change, 4,800 inmates were serving life sentences in California.
With 25 years experience in correctional planning and research, Austin cited several examples in other states and other parts of California that could counter efforts by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff Lee Baca to build a $1 billion jail to house more inmates in replacing the decrepit Men's Central Jail.
Austin noted that Contra Costa County has an incarceration rate one-half the rest of the state, achieved principally through probation reform. By shortening probation terms from three to five years down to 18 months or less, Contra Costa has dramatically reduced its recidivism rates and probation caseloads.
"Also, New York City has an incarceration rate one-quarter the rest of the country, thanks to policing changes," said Austin. "Police have enormous discretion to arrest someone for a felony or a misdemeanor."
"And police need to be part of the solution," Austin continued. "Yes, there are dangerous people out there who need to be locked up, but many others are locked up who need help with substance abuse, not prison sentences."
How Reducing the Prison Population Improves Crime Rates
In "How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration," coauthored with Michael Jacobson, Austin reports that changes in New York City's policing policies drove down its state's prison population from 71,000 inmates in 2000 to 59,000 in 2009 - a remarkable 17 percent drop at a time when the California population had soared to 173,000 in 2006. Furthermore:
- The state's probation population fell from 150,000 in 1998 to 122,000 in 2008, a drop of 19 percent, with New York City's population declining a remarkable 43 percent, from 77,000 in 1998 to 44,000 in 2008.
- Riker's Island - the City's jail - saw its population drop from 22,000 in 1991 to 13,200 in 2009.
While these incarceration and probation levels were falling so dramatically for New York City, its crime rate was also falling, even more dramatically. In 1998, 719,887 felonies were reported to the FBI in New York City, while in 2008 that number had fallen 72 percent, to 198,419. Outside New York City, where other New York State jurisdictions had not changed their policing and probation policies, the number of crimes declined by half as much, to 38 percent.
"Broken Windows" advocates attribute these remarkable improvements to more aggressive policing policies by the New York Police Department - and even to its controversial "Stop and Frisk" program.
"Instead of waiting for a felony to happen and making an arrest, cops now nab offenders for less serious crimes, which at most sends them to jail for a few days or weeks but interrupts the arrestees' more serious criminal activities," writes Heather Mac Donald in the National Review.
But Austin and others attribute the declining crime rate more to changes in demographics, an aging of the population, and a decrease in illicit drug markets. And the major influence was New York's efforts to treat drug addiction more as a public health issue and less a criminal one, which have reduced felony arrests, improved crime rates, and lessened prison and probation rates.
"It is no coincidence that New York State has the largest network of Alternative to Incarceration programs in the country and, that unlike other large states such as California, Florida and Texas, it has seen crime and incarceration rates plummet simultaneously - improving public safety and saving much-needed revenue," write the ACLU's Kara Dansky and the Fortune Society's Glenn E. Martin.
Saner approaches to policing practices, as Austin pointed out, and better and more humane support for people returning to their communities from prison, as Burton called for, could do much to inform California's and L.A.'s debate about its mass incarceration debacle.
Upcoming discussions at USC and the Pat Brown Institute will further this discussion:
- Part II: The Conditions, Costs and Impact of L.A. County's Jail System - April 10, 12-1 PM, with Patrisse Cullors, Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails; Alex Johnson, Office of County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas; and Miriam Krinsky, LA County Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence
- Part III: Community Supervision and New Public Safety Strategies for California - April 17, 12-1 PM, with Lenore Anderson, Californians for Safety and Justice; and Jerry Powers, Chief Probation Officer of Los Angeles County.
The USC events are held at Ronald Tutor Campus Center (RTCC 450) at 3607 Trousdale Parkway.
- Prison Realignment Comes to Los Angeles County: What's Our Plan? - April 19, 9-11 AM, with Jim Newton, Los Angeles Times; Lenore Anderson, Californians for Safety and Justice; Leroy Baca, Los Angeles County Sheriff; Chris Holden, Member, California State Assembly; and Marsha Temple, Integrated Recovery Network
The Pat Brown Institute event will be held at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, 100 N. Central Avenue, Los Angeles.
Dick Price is Editor of L.A. Progressive, an electronic magazine for progressives living in and around Los Angeles that has gained a national audience. This article was originally published at L.A. Progressive.