October 10, 2006

Overstuffed Prisons

I see Arnold Schwarzenegger has had to declare a state of emergency in California's overcrowded prisons. The government is now shipping inmates to other states in order to alleviate the burden. One could make a couple of obvious points here, either about the draconian drug laws that have created an unsustainable situation, or the iron grip that the prison's guard union has on the state legislature, preventing real changes from taking place. But instead, let's talk about parole reform, the topic all the rage in the California legislature these days.

Nationwide, roughly 51 percent of ex-convicts end up back in prison after three years, according to the Justice Department. Of those, over half are sent back not because they committed a crime, but because they had a "technical" parole violation: missing an appointment, failing to land a job, getting a speeding ticket, flunking a drug test. Parole officers are overworked, and often have to deal with hundreds of cases at a time, so it's usually just easier to send a difficult parolee who misses appointments back to jail. There's less risk that way.

So even setting aside the problems with wildly irrational drug laws and mandatory minimums, that's a huge number of people going back to jail for no good reason. For speeding tickets, in some cases. It's a massive problem in California, where 70 percent of parolees are back in prison in three years, and 67 percent of new admissions to California prisons are parole violators. It's the worst state in the nation on both counts. By comparison, only about 14 percent of new admissions in Mississippi of all places are parole violators.

A working solution won't necessarily involve more funding. California already spends more per parolee than most states. Procedures could change. Most people violate parole in the first few months; so "front-loading" resources to avoid this could pay off. Using insurance-style risk instruments could help parole agencies figure out which ex-convicts require more supervision than others. Incremental sanctions, rather than automatic jail time, for technical parole violations seems sensible. California could also reduce the barriers faced by prisoners when trying to re-enter society. Right now many can't vote, and they're excluded from receiving food stamps or college loans or whatnot. It's a pretty clear recipe for recidivism.

Schwarzenegger entered office with good ideas about parole reform, only to abandon them in the face of carping from victim's rights groups and the prison's guard unions. He also assumed parole reform would lead to instant savings, and required that the changes basically fund themselves, which sabotaged the project from the start. Nowadays, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the governor isn't even "considering alternatives to imprisoning 'technical' parole violators who did not commit new crimes." But other states have tried it, and succeeded: Texas, Ohio, and Kansas especially. Surely it can be done, no?
-- Brad Plumer 8:51 PM || ||