The buzz at the Sacramento Bee is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will soon ask the state legislature to approve a massive release of prisoners who are thought to be of low risk to the general population:
According to details of a budget proposal made available to The Bee, the administration will ask the Legislature to authorize the release of certain non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex offenders who are in the final 20 months of their terms.
The proposal would cut the prison population by 22,159 inmates and save the cash-strapped state an estimated $256 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and more than $780 million through June 30, 2010. The proposal also calls for a reduction of more than 4,000 prison jobs, most of them involving correctional officers.
A gubernatorial spokesman said no final decisions had been made.
The administration, which is looking at across-the-board budget cuts to stem a budget deficit pegged as high as $14 billion, is looking for more savings by shifting lower-risk parolees into what officials describe as a “summary” parole system. Such a shift also would require legislative approval.
Under “summary” parole, offenders would remain on supervised release and would still be subject to searches by local law enforcement at any time, but they would not be returned to prison on technical violations. It would take a new crime prosecuted by local law enforcement officials to return an offender to prison.
According to UC Berkeley law professor and corrections expert Franklin Zimring the mass release of some 13% of the California penal system’s population is unique in the nation.
“This could be an extraordinarily interesting experiment,” Zimring said. “The nice thing about having a Republican governor do it is that I don’t think there is going to be a firestorm.”
“You can guarantee that we’ll be out and yelling against this,” said Nina Salarno Ashford, an executive board member of Crime Victims United of California.
“It’s very tragic,” union [California Correctional Peace Officers Association] spokesman Lance Corcoran said. “It’s the exact opposite direction that the state needs to go.”
There’s no word yet on who will be released and when. Given the size of the prisoner pool it almost seems inevitable that one of these already-rotten apples will take a turn for the worse and use his new-found freedom to commit a major crime and become Schwarzenegger’s Willie Horton or Wayne DuMond.
Of course Schwarzenegger has essentially maxed out in his political career, meaning the damage to his future would be minimal anyway.
The problem with the governor’s proposal is that the fundamental issue behind the state’s prison overcrowding problem is that nothing has been done to correct the underlying cause, inappropriately long sentences for drug offenders, many of whom, in my opinion, don’t belong in prison at all.
Nation-wide, approximately 25% of all prisoners are incarcerated because of drug offenses. This statistic, while by turns shocking and silly, actually under-reports the problem because an untold number of other prisoners have been jailed for crimes related directly or indirectly to their drug-related issues.
Another statistic that demonstrates the misguided priorities of our justice system in regard to drug offenders is the fact that, on average, drug-related sentences are 15% longer than those handed down for violent felonies.
In California, the state prison population rose by 700% between 1980 and 2000. According to the report’s authors Maccallair and Terry:
What has driven the growth of the prison system in California over the past two decades is the 25-fold increase in the number of drug offenders sentenced to prison under harsh new state sentencing laws for virtually every offense imaginable. Because of these laws, California now has the highest rate of drug offender incarcerations in the nation – 134 per 100,000. A rate that exceeds states such as Texas and Louisiana, where compassion and sympathy for law breakers is not highly prized (49 per 100,000 and 106 per 100,000 respectively).
Where is the voice of reason that demands that the questions, “Why are we criminalizing the public’s obvious desire to intoxicate themselves with certain substances?” and “Why are we mandating such harsh penalties for non-injurious crimes?”, be asked and answered as a matter of national policy?
While Schwarzenegger’s early release program may have some of the same effects as a rational answer to the question above it seems to me to be going about things in a backwards and foolish fashion.