The California Conundrum

Now that California has been granted an additional two years to come into compliance with the U. S. Supreme Court’s order to reduce its prison population, we can only hope the best idea to come out of this fiasco is not lost. Early on, the federal judges overseeing the effort ordered the state to create a list of prisoners least likely to reoffend if released from prison: The Low-Risk List. Due to the recent two year extension, this most reasonable and completely logical idea remains in limbo.

The Public Policy Institute of California, a think tank, found 44% of the current prison population to be at low-risk for reoffending. Those presenting the lowest risk by far are prisoners over the age of 50, well past their crime-prone years, and who have already served decades behind bars.

There are some 27,500 prisoners over the age of 50 in California prisons. If only 55% of those (15,000) prisoners were found to be low-risk and released on alternative custody, the cost savings in one year alone would be $900 million. In one swoop: all these savings, and the prison population drops well below the mandated population reduction.

Here is the conundrum: The lowest risk prisoners, the best candidates for a successful parole, were convicted of serious crimes, including murder.

To even consider releasing a person who was convicted of murder seems unthinkable. Or is it? Perhaps this discussion is long overdue. Those so convicted have been released; that you are only now beginning to hear about them is not coincidental.

In the past, whenever this critical and sensitive conversation has looked to get started, a well-rehearsed media strategy would unfold. Select failed parolee horror stories would resurface - terrifying tragedies which are extremely painful to remember - and the subject of releasing any prisoners, much less those convicted of serious crimes, quietly went away.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Remind the general public of the most shocking, horrible crime stories in recent memory, and they will support any measure to keep all inmates locked up, preferably forever.

Catch phrase: “Public Safety.” Hashtag: “Propaganda par excellence."

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR’s) whopping 70% recidivism rate has been widely reported, but what the guard’s union, The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), and other special interest groups do not want you to know is that the rate of failed parole for inmates who were convicted of murder is less than one percent. 0.6% to be precise. Of the 860 people convicted of murder who were released between January 1995 and March 2011, only 5 were returned to prison, and none for murder, attempted murder, or assault and/or battery. This from the CDCR’s own 2011 Adult Institutions Outcome Evaluation Report. Numerous studies all conclude that the possibility of an old lifer who has been sitting behind bars for decades will commit a new serious or violent crime is virtually nonexistent.

So why mislead the public? Why proclaim these aging inmates are still dangerous when their own statistics prove otherwise? Why not just release them?

Simple: $60,000 per year, per inmate.

Sixty thousand dollars is the annual cost of incarceration for each inmate. (The costs increase exponentially with medical care for aging inmates.) Most taxpayers do not realize that the prison system is a nexus for profit. Inmates serving indeterminate sentences, such as life without parole (LWOP) and other life sentences are, quite literally, money in the bank. A young lifer, if he can reach the national male life expectancy of 72-76, can rack up more than $3 million in taxpayer funded expenses. Even a 50-year-old lifer, who has already served 20 or 30 years, is still good for another million. To release these breathing human commodities would decrease prison profits.

Once we understand that corrections is in fact a business, the CDCR’s $9.6 billion annual budget begins to make perfect sense. The guards’ union raises approximately $23 million per year, and spends roughly $8 million of it on lobbying. The likes of tobacco companies, pharmaceutical conglomerates, strip-mining coal companies, etc., hire lobbyists to manipulate legislature and laws to best serve their ability to maximize profit. So, too, the business of corrections.

Policies and initiatives that actually promote recidivism rates are implemented by design. Indeterminate sentencing laws keep the prisons full. Any reform which would result in fewer people behind bars must be thwarted. The constant influx of human beings is integral. As noted by Sagar Jethani in the PolicyMic article “Union of the Snake: How California’s Prison Guards Subvert Democracy” (May 14, 2013):

The union has been one of the leading backers of tougher sentencing laws. It spend over $100,000 to pass the original Three Strikes law. It dropped another $1 million to defeat Prop 5, which would have reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes and allocated more resources to treating drug addiction. It spent over $1 million to beat Prop 66, which would have reduced the number of crimes that carry mandatory life sentences.

The prison industry will continue to do everything possible to ensure their growth, and at taxpayer expense. Misleading the public and scaring them into blind support is fair game. That politicians tow the line or risk losing their essential “tough on crime” credential is a given. Finally, exploit the grief of the victim’s families and there you have it - a sure-fire formula for the continued profiting from the warehousing of human beings. The bottom line: their job is to maximize and grow their share of the state budget.

One can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a pattern here, a pattern that stretches across the nation. Such a pattern could explain how it is that 41,000 men and women have been sentenced to die by imprisonment (LWOP) in the United States, while in the rest of the world there are, perhaps, 200 likewise sentenced. Just this past year the European Court of Human Rights ruled that life without the hope of parole is inhumane; they outlawed the practice on July 20, 2013. The U.S. represents 5% of the world’s population, and yet houses a disproportionate 25% of the world’s reported prisoners.

The implications are staggering. Objective professional analysis is needed here, and not the earnest though undoubtedly biased conjecturing offered by an indeterminate resident of the system in question.

Predictably, the Low-Risk List has been strenuously resisted by state officials. The guard union’s conspicuous silence can only mean they recognize the obvious: the issue of reducing prison population is best resolved without drawing attention to themselves. They have spent millions of dollars to promote the increase of prison population. To be exposed as a major contributing factor to prison overcrowding is not in their best interest. They do not want their agenda to become the narrative.

Unfortunately, the disconcerting reality is this union—which has been called “the country’s most powerful union”—can weather this or any storm. The effectiveness of their timely fear campaigns has secured the full support of the misled public, and the “keep ‘em all locked up” mindset is firmly in place. The palms of state officials from the governor’s office on down have been greased. “CCPOA spent nearly $2 million supporting Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign. In the past ten years the union has contributed funds to ever current senator in California,” according to Sagar Jethani in the article cited above.

With their unmated lobbying muscle, working with politicians who do not dare resist their demands, and all the public support they could ever want, to think that this mighty union can be beat is a grand notion.

On the plus side is this window of opportunity where truth might at least have a chance to be heard. There will be hell to pay, and the window is small, but all we can do is try.

The bottom line remains: California is going to reduce its prison population, if only temporarily. Private prisons are the wave of the future for this state, especially now that the CCPOA has secured the right to operate these “private” warehouses. For the moment, let us pretend that a durable, cost effective solution to prison overcrowding is being sought (and not the continued push for expansion). In which case a long-term solution would be needed. The logical answer begins with sentencing reform. The abolition of indeterminate sentencing is imperative, though highly unlikely. Indeterminate sentences are the golden egg of the corrections business: keep as many warm bodies in the warehouse for as long as humanly possible. Release medium-to-high risk inmates as opposed to low risk inmates and, eventually, they will commit a violent crime, or at least catch a third strike, thus earning them an LWOP or life sentences. Repeat the cycle ad nauseum.

California has perfected this scheme and is the envy of correctional departments across the country. Due to their remarkable success, the guards’ union can guarantee their rank and file members a cool $73,000 per year (not including overtime pay, which often pushes the total to more than $100,000 per year), 60% above the national average for prison guards, which is about $45,000 per year.

So what can be done right now, as California faces its first of three court-ordered benchmarks (June 30, 2014) in which to come into compliance with the federal order to reduce its prison population?

Answer: The unthinkable.

Demand the release of those inmates who actually do top the Low-Risk List: older inmates who were convicted of serious crimes - including murder - decades ago.

This only seems like an outrageous suggestion and, truly, there is nothing here that is as it seems. The corrections business has spent millions of dollars to perpetuate misleading and utterly false impressions about prisoners, particularly the indeterminate sentences. The objective is to demonize beyond redemption LWOPs and lifers so that, frankly, the public will buy what is being sold: unfounded fear and unnecessary expansion.

More prisoners mean more prisons. More prisons, more prison guards. More guards, more guard union members, more dues and fund-raising capability, which ultimately translates into political influence.

The entire country has been conditioned to believe that indeterminate sentences are not only acceptable, but necessary. This did not happen accidentally; the outcome is the direct result of special interest fear campaigns. It has been such an easy sell because it appears perfectly logical. The fallacy is that all inmates, especially those who were convicted of serious crimes decades ago, are people to be feared. In fact, the opposite is true. These are not the ‘worst of the worst,’ these are actually the safest of the safe.

From a study by the Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School:

"For most offenses—and in most societies—crime rates rise in the early teenage years, peak during mid-to-late teens, and subsequently decline dramatically. Not only are most violent crimes committed by people under 30, but even the criminality that continues after that declines drastically after age 40 and even more after age 50. In California, specifically, CDCR’s newest recidivism report (October 2010) documents that inmates designated as serious or violent offenders, older inmates who serve 15 years or more, recidivated at a lower rate than those who were not."

From the Justice Policy Institute 2011 report about how to reduce the prison population:

“As the prison population ages, government agencies should consider releasing more older people on parole, because as people age, they are less likely to engage in illegal behavior … Decision makers and legislators should use this statistical information to reduce the number of people behind bars.”

Have no doubt, our politicians are well-informed about these and other studies, including extensive reports by Dr. James Austin, nationally recognized expert on corrections issues, that all come to the same conclusion: a large majority of the safest inmates overall were once considered the most dangerous. That our politicians are unwilling to publicly acknowledge this empirical evidence is perfectly understandable. They want to keep their jobs. Public perception is their guideline, their rule, they survive by public opinion polls and they are keenly aware of just how deeply the public has been affected by all the cunning and deception regarding prisoners and the criminal justice system. To take a stand and make the hard choices that would benefit California financially and safely would be political suicide. So they just keep supporting “tough on crime” policies, which do nothing for public safety and only serve to promote for-profit incarceration.

Thank goodness a few mavericks still roam the political arena, such as former Senator Jim Webb, who in his 2001 Parade magazine article was not afraid to tell it like it is:

“America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation’s prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives. We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration.”

Special interests aside, the wasteful practice of keeping increasingly expensive cells occupied with folks who no longer pose a threat to public safety, and instead releasing those who do, defies reason. Older inmates, meaning those who have aged in prison with 20-30 consecutive years under their belts, are not the same as they were when they entered prison. No one is the same after decades have passed. Thoreau said, “Things to do not change; we do.”

There are many long-term inmates who, right now, are involved inside in doing good work for others, because it is the right thing to do. Corrections studies cite example after example of such prisoners as being the least likely to reoffend. There are numerous factors, not the least of which is bottom-line economics, why such prisoners should no longer be behind bars. To be sure, there is the passage of time. The crimes that have defined these men and women happened so long ago they are simply not the same people any more. The intervening seasons of suffering the consequences of their actions has naturally matured and mellowed them with age. But more important is their remorse, and their accountability, and the dedication that many of these men and women have put into rehabilitating themselves, into becoming better people, people of whom their family and friends can be proud.

The Progressive Programming Facility at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, provides real life examples of this type of prisoner. The purpose of this voluntary program is to create an environment free from violence, drugs, and any type of counter-productive behavior. The program is for inmates who wish to participate in such self-help programs as Anger Management, Victims Awareness Houses of Healing, Parenting, Catalyst Foundation, Alcoholics & Narcotics Anonymous, and Lifer’s Therapy, to name a few. There are religious programs, veterans groups, art programs, music, writing, painting. There are literacy programs, GED tutoring, business classes, and degree programs from Coastline Community College.

Before an inmate can enter this program he must have five years clean: no drugs, no gang activity, no violence, no assaults on staff or inmates, or any serious rules violations. Only then may be signed an agreement to program constructively, progressively with all races, inmates and staff, and to actively participate in the self-help environment. The majority of prisoners in the PPF are serving indeterminate sentences. They are Lifers who, theoretically, can be released but have lived in prison for decades without a release date. And many are LWOPs. They endeavor to improve themselves in spite of a future that offers no hope of parole.

These are the people the prison industry wants you to fear. Remember this when the next fear campaign comes and the big push for prison expansion rolls around. The state will threaten the release of these very prisoners, who are actually the lowest risk inmates of all. They will mask them with the faces of a handful of the most notorious criminals in recent history. It would be wise to discern the difference between the true monsters and the prisoners who have dedicated their time behind bars to change.

To keep thing in perspective, nothing here is meant to imply these men are saints. These are convicted criminals: good behavior in prison does not exonerate, nor should it. Yet one truth should not cancel the other. Victims’ families still anguish; rehabilitation is possible. The two truths can co-exist.

The purpose here is to provide useful and factual information about a segment of prisoners who offer the utmost advantage: reducing prison population, creating savings to taxpayers, and posing very little threat to public safety. Rehabilitated prisoners make for a better, a safer society.

Fact: The men and women referred to in this article committed terrible crimes, long ago.

Fact: After many years of incarceration for these crimes, these same people are now the safest and suitable men and women for release.

The U. S. Supreme Court has ordered the State of California to reduce its prison population. In their wisdom and foresight they further directed the state to create the Low-Risk List and to release inmates accordingly, because it is the smartest and safest way to reduce the prison population, pure and simple. The state needs to identify and acknowledge the men and women who truly top the Low-Risk List, and then, after careful screening and on a case-by-case basis, those inmates should be released.

There really is no debate here, because nothing takes precedence over public safety. If prisoners must be released, then they should be the safest of all.