Tuesday, June 8, 2010

For Safer Communities, Reserve Prison Space for Responding to Serious Offenses

Governor Schwarzenegger has the right idea when it comes to one corrections proposal: handle more low-level nonviolent offenses at the county level and give counties additional resources to cope.

Prison cells are expensive and should be reserved for responding to serious offenses. People who commit non-violent drug and property crimes should be dealt with at the local level, where they are more likely to find support from family and successfully re-integrate into the community. Because keeping more petty offenders at the local level will cost counties more, it’s only fair to give counties part of the savings.

Unfortunately, the Governor’s proposal – as currently designed - is fatally flawed. It would require that all inmates sentenced to three years or less for a non-violent, non-serious offense would serve their time in county jail rather than state prison. This plan would simply shift the state problem of over-incarceration to the counties.

In fact, the plan would create a financial incentive for counties to sentence more people to longer terms of incarceration (and therefore keep petty offenders behind bars longer), because the counties would get paid for each person that they keep out of prison by incarcerating in their local jail. Counties would receive nothing for individuals sentenced to probation or to court-mandated treatment.

The plan will also create enormous confusion, confusion that will inevitably lead to litigation. Are these inmates in the “custody and control” of the CDCR, or the local county Sheriff? The Penal Code says the CDCR has jurisdiction only over people housed in one of its facilities, not individuals in county jail. This could impact whether the inmates may legally be placed on parole, whether their convictions will even constitute “felonies,” whether the convictions are “prison priors,” and whether the inmates retain their rights to vote. Who is responsible for providing (e.g., paying for) adequate health care for these inmates? Will these inmates be allowed to participate in programs like fire camp and programs for women prisoners with children? These are just some of the potential problems.

The Governor has the concept right but the execution wrong. We have a better approach!

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