Corrections' master plan falls short

By Emily Harris | 05/03/12 12:00 AM PST
This piece was originally published by the Capitol Weekly.

The Department of Corrections’ recently released ten-year master plan “The Future of California Corrections” does not manage to escape the massive gravitational pull of 30 years of failed prison policy and in the end fails to offer a vision of a better future for California.

The CDCR has been going through an extended identity crisis since 2005 when then-Secretary Rod Hickman declared Delano II to be the last prison that California would build, announcing an end to a 25 year run of runaway prison construction. Widespread opposition to that prison, the persistent budget crisis and consistent polling results that showed Californians opposed to spending more on prisons left CDCR looking for a new mission.

In 2007 AB900 was smuggled through the Legislature in a desperate attempt to retain momentum for prison construction. It authorized the construction of 40,000 new prison cells and 13,000 jail cells, and immediately provoked statewide outrage. Five years later only dozens of the cells have been built.

The Department that defined itself for three decades primarily through building and filling new mega-prisons needs a new identity. So the question is: does the 10 year plan reinvent the CDCR with a vision that aligns itself with what Californians have been demanding for years? The answer is no.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Plata, calling for massive reduction in the number of people in prison,  and  Governor Brown’s realignment of tens of thousands of people convicted of non-serious, non-violent, non-sex-related felonies from state to county responsibility finally provided an opportunity to refashion CDCR.

The report does make several positive changes: an end to sending Californians to out-of-state private prisons, the elimination of $4.1 billion in unused AB900 borrowing authorization, and the reclassification downward of 17,000 people who will remain in prison. People in prison, their families and prison activists and analysts have advocated such changes for years.

Unfortunately, the report makes it clear that the CDCR still believes that the default solution to any problem is to expand the prison system. It requests $810 million to build more cells, and refurbish the Folsom Transitional Treatment Facility to a women’s prison. This expansion would offset the CDCR’s proposal to close the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco. Closing prisons is a great idea, so why not start with the worst of the worst? Why not close Pelican Bay or Valley State, where prisoners went on hunger strike to protest tortuous conditions?

The CDCR’s lack of interest in reducing the prison population is glaringly apparent. They plan an increase in the prison population by 2016-17 and scandalously will petition the Court to raise the maximum overcrowding level from 137.5% of capacity to 145%, rather than comply with the court order. “The Future” proposes only two measures to reduce the number of people inside, when there are dozens of proven, common sense strategies that can be safely implemented, including instituting a geriatric parole process, granting parole to life term prisoners, and revising the sentencing laws that overcrowded our prisons in the first place.

The CDCR promises to provide rehabilitative programming to 70 percent of the “target population” in prisons and to 70 percent of parolees who need reentry programming. When the state has the highest recidivism rate in the county, providing services to those inside and those transitioning out is essential. Seventy percent is not adequate. If the CDCR can’t provide high quality programs, then we shouldn’t be locking so many people up.

When reading the report, it becomes clear that the CDCR thinks not that they grew too big, but that they grew too big too fast. The hole in the center of “The Future of California Corrections” is a lack of vision on how to further shrink California’s enormous prison system.

The alignment of the Court’s ruling, realignment and public sentiment that we’re spending too much money locking up too many people provide an historic opportunity to redefine California’s prison system. The “Future of California Corrections” should be first and foremost a large-scale effort to reduce the prison population and move resources away from cages and back into education, treatment and services that are a real investment in the future of California. California’s decision makers should not be content to take two steps forward and three steps back, but should join this state’s residents in blazing a bold turn away from failed policies. Let’s invest precious public spending on programs that help people rather than drop more billions into a dysfunctional corrections system.

Ed’s Note: Emily Harris is the statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB,  a broad-based coalition of over 50 organizations seeking to CURB prison spending by reducing the number of people in prison and the number of prisons in the state.

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