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Prison System Still A Taxing Issue

Published: January 15, 2014

The good news is California’s prison population has dropped from its peak of 170,000 inmates in 2006 to 120,000. The bad news is the federal government wants that number to be cut by another 10,000.

“We’ve done a good job of reducing our prison population in recent years,” said Ryan Fischer, an associate professor of criminal justice at CSULB, “but that last 10,000 is like losing that last 10 pounds on a diet. It’s tough.”

Fischer’s interest in prisons came about during his Ph.D. studies at UC Irvine, studying under Joan Petersilia who has spent more than 25 years looking at the performance of criminal justice agencies and who has been instrumental in affecting sentencing and corrections reform.

“She led me to focus on prison and reentry and the correctional system in general,” said Fischer. “Her role on the experts’ panel convened by Gov. (Arnold) Schwarzenegger in 2007 sort of led to my knowledge in that area.” Petersilia is now faculty co-director for Stanford University’s Criminal Justice Center.

Fischer believes the prison population in California began to grow when the sentencing structure changed in the 1970s. From the early 1900s, sentencing was done through an indeterminate structure, where prisoners could be released early if they could convince a parole board they were a better person and not a threat to society. In 1977, that changed to a determinate structure, where a prisoner actually served time handed down at sentencing, except for a time reduction for good behavior.

“The determinate sentencing structure took away any incentive for prisoners to better themselves,” said Fischer. “They knew they were going for the length of their sentence, so why bother. There was no incentive to participate in rehabilitation treatment or education programs and during the 1980s and ’90s we saw notably fewer inmates participate in those types of programs. For a 30- to 35-year period, people were stuck in prison without treatment and there was no incentive for treatment on either end, financially for the prisons to offer it or personally for offenders to be motivated to get treatment.”

The Schwarzenegger administration began addressing the problem with the experts’ panels, and it was clear a reduction in the prison population was necessary.

“It was beyond obvious,” said Fischer, “and overcrowding wasn’t the only issue; it was access to things like medical care as well. The bottom line was that the federal government stepped in and said, ‘You’ve gotten yourself into a horrible situation and you’re not doing a good job,’ so it needed to take over.”

At present, the federal government has authority to dictate what California should and should not do with its prisons, but according to Fischer in an effort to regain control Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration implemented a realignment plan in October 2011.

“They have slowed down the rate of people coming into prison, then over time the overall reduction from the natural exiting,” he said. “The realignment plan pretty much said that people who are non-non-nons—non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual convictions—are not going to be sent to one of the 33 state institutions. Rather, they are going to be housed at one of the county jails. However, all you are doing is displacement. You’re not fixing the core problem, you’re simply moving prisoners to another location.” Inmates housed in county jails don’t count toward the statewide prison totals.

Ryan Fischer - Prison System Still A Taxing Issue
PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Ryan Fischer

And housing more hardened criminals in county facilities can have another long-term downside.

“County jails aren’t designed to hold people long term and provide treatment options,” said Fischer. “Also, you’re introducing a harsher breed of criminal and that can have an influence on a lesser criminal in what they call a criminogenic effect.”

At present, Gov. Brown’s administration has a couple of proposals on the table. In order to reduce the prison population by the newly extended deadline of Feb. 24, spend $300 million to rent out space in private facilities or receive a three-year extension by putting $200 million into rehabilitation and at least keep the prison numbers from increasing.

“I think it’s something we have to do in order to regain control of our prison system,” said Fischer. “The rehabilitative approach, the preventative approach are good things. Unfortunately, I think it will take a full overhaul of our state sentencing structure, which may even mean a return to something that resembles the pre-1977 change, so more of an indeterminate sentencing structure with the parole board along with the reintroduction of treatment, incentive-based prisonization, where prisoners have a reason they want to better themselves.”

Fischer also thinks that building additional prisons in California is just a future reality, but doesn’t think it’s a long-term solution.

“It makes the out-of-pocket costs greater for every taxpayer living on main street California, but it will also provide jobs, so it’s a real balancing act,” he said. “There will come a time when we’ll need more facilities just because our general population is growing. But we need to drastically change what we’ve done and it’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve created such a monster.”