Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed statistics on California’s recidivism rate to the Pew Research Center. The recidivism study was actually conducted by the Pew Center on the States.
California has been slowly reducing its prison population — in part by shipping inmates to other states — but this week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court will force it to act in earnest.
It’s about time.
Our prisons are crowded to the point that inmates and staff are in real danger, and prison administrators have been forced to place far too much emphasis on warehousing and not nearly enough on providing the education and job skills proven to reduce recidivism.
Little wonder that California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation; in a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, only Minnesota had a higher recidivism rate.
On top of that, prisons are a huge drain on the state’s dwindling financial resources. They funnel money away from our schools, colleges and universities, our services for elderly and disabled Californians, our parks and highways, our health care services.
In that respect, reducing the prison population will not only benefit inmates, but the entire state — provided, of course, that it’s done safely.
Gov. Brown’s plan to gradually reduce the prison population by sending certain low-risk inmates to county jails, rather than state prisons, appears to be a reasonable solution.
Yet we’re concerned about how the governor’s plan will pencil out for SLO County.
SLO County officials have calculated that our county jail will have to house an additional 170 inmates once the governor’s plan fully kicks in.
To accommodate that increase, the county will re-activate two modular jail units and the “weekender” barracks, at a cost of around $200,000.
But here’s where it gets really expensive. The Sheriff’s Department estimates that it will have to add 40 correctional officers to handle this influx — in part because the facilities where the additional prisoners would be housed are separate and not as efficiently designed as newer units. The total cost to the Sheriff’s Department is estimated at $4.8 million.
On top of that, the county Probation Department’s workload will increase. An individual probation officer’s caseload will jump to 68-73 cases, up from the current 55-60.
If the county wants to keep caseloads at current levels, it will have to hire an additional three probation officers at a cost of $236,000.
That will bring the county’s total cost to about $5 million a year.
As far as we can tell, the governor plans to cover the increased cost to counties with revenues from the extensions of sales, income and vehicle tax increases. It’s not clear what will happen if those increases aren’t approved.
And even if the counties are reimbursed by the state, we still find it a questionable use of taxpayer dollars to house inmates in inefficient, outdated jail facilities — such as those here in SLO County — that will drive up staffing costs.
We agree that for the short term, shifting inmates to whatever county facilities may be available is preferable to the early release of prison inmates.
But for the long term, California must come up with a viable permanent solution.
For a start, it must examine sentencing rules to do away with ridiculously excessive terms for relatively minor offenses. It’s also imperative that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation introduce educational and vocational programs that have track records of reducing recidivism.
And finally, if the state is going to continue to rely on counties to accept ever larger numbers of inmates, it must provide adequate funds to house them in decent facilities. Otherwise, it’s merely shifting the prison overcrowding problem onto counties.