Prisons Boss Sees Ways to Meet High Court's Overcrowding Order

By Gene Cubbison
|  Wednesday, May 25, 2011  |  Updated 9:45 PM PDT
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Pros and Cons of SCOTUS Prison Decision


Inmates sit in crowded conditions at California State Prison, Los Angeles.

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State Prison Boss Pumps Up Early Release Plan

The U.S. Supreme Court's order to relieve overcrowding in California's prisons figures to put a lot of pressure on local jails, 're-entry' programs and law enforcement. The state's prisons chief was in San Diego Wednesday and explained how things might work.

Pros and Cons of SCOTUS Prison Decision

Mark Mullen NBCSanDiego anchor discusses reducing California's inmate population and the private prison option with conservative commentator Joseph Perkins and liberal commentator Jon Elliott.
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The U.S. Supreme Court's order to relieve overcrowding in California's prisons figures to put a lot of pressure on local jails, 're-entry' programs and law enforcement.

The state's prisons chief was in San Diego Wednesday, explaining how things might work.

The court order involves some 34,000 'low-level' inmates, about a fourth of the system's population, getting out early over the next two years.

As it is, at least double that number are paroled, or released as scheduled, on an annual basis -- and 72 percent return within 18 months.

"These short-term, lower-level offenders, we'll house locally and provide (the counties) funding for that," says state Corrections & Rehabilitation Dept. Secy Matthew Cate. "And the really long-term bad guys, we'll keep at the state level. And I think we'll get a better outcome."

During a speaking engagement Wednesday in Mission Valley in connection with "Out4Life", a conference of statewide offender re-entry program experts, Cate pointed out that 47,000 felons were sent to prison last year and served only 90 days or less.

"These are the kind of guys that are really expensive for the state to handle," Cate said. "(They're) much less expensive at a local level."

For their part, county sheriffs want a cap of three to four years on the time their jails hold inmates who are transferred there from prisons, or newly convicted felons sentenced in local courts.

They also want a fair amount of subsidies from Corrections & Rehabilitation, which spends nearly $50,000 a year per inmate.

They figure the counties could provide in-custody and re-entry programs in the low-to-mid $30,000 annual range.

While optimistic, the thinking is that if the rate of recidivism could be cut in half, not only would taxpayer costs would decline dramatically -- public safety would improve.

"So doesn't it just make sense that they should come out maybe with a chance to succeed in the community, so they're not burglarizing you home, my home?" says San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. "Stealing your car, stealing my car? We think, with the proper amount of money, we're better positioned than the state is to provide that type of programming."

In an interview Wednesday, Gore said the prison overcrowding problem began two decades ago when lawmakers got "tough on crime" without allocating funding to increase the system's capacity.

As for the current state cost of maintaining the prisons: "It's crazy; economically, it's crazy," Gore said. "It offends me as a taxpayer to be recycling these people and just continue to pour money down the failed system."

Success in meeting the Supreme Court's order also will depend on the reliability of the system to properly classify as 'low-level' the inmates involved in the releases from prison to local custody and, ultimately, to the streets.

By definition, they are convicts sentenced for nonviolent, non-sexual and 'non-serious' crimes

The state correctional system's independent inspector general has found that hundreds of inmates with "a high risk for violence" were released last year under a new law allowing for unsupervised parole releases.

Nearly one out of five inmates in a sample of 10,000 were wrongly assessed for risk, according to the inspector general's report.

The department corrected what it termed "alleged errors" in the system's computerized assessment programs, but a misclassification rate of 8 percent remained in the aftermath.

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