The California Legislature has failed several times to change backward sentencing and parole policies that keep the state’s prisons dangerously overcrowded with too many minor offenders sent to jail for too long. These failures, which have driven up corrections costs by about 50 percent in less than a decade, came home to roost earlier this month, when a federal court ordered the state to cut the prison population significantly. Days later, an ominous riot broke out in the men’s prison in Chino.
The time for ducking this issue has clearly passed, but a reform plan approved by the State Senate after being championed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in danger of being gutted in the Assembly. Democratic lawmakers who should know better are running scared of the prison guards’ union and of being labeled “soft on crime.”
The heart of the problem is California’s poorly designed parole system. A vast majority of states use parole to supervise serious offenders who require close monitoring. California has historically put just about everyone on parole. According to a federally backed study released last year, more people are sent to prison in California by parole officers than by the courts, and nearly half of those people go back on technical violations like missed appointments and failed drug tests.
The reform package that passed in the Senate would allow the state to focus parole efforts on serious offenders and end the costly practice of cycling people back to jail for technical violations. Under another provision, low-risk offenders like the elderly and the infirm could be removed from costly medical care in prison and sent to alternative custody nursing homes, where they would be monitored with electronic ankle bracelets. Low-risk inmates who completed college degrees or vocational programs would earn credits shortening their sentences.
This bill should have easily passed in the Assembly, which has a Democratic majority supposedly in favor of reform. But the Democrats, many of whom are running for other offices, are clearly fearful of even taking a vote that would allow a sick, 80-year-old inmate to spend what remains of his life in a nursing home wearing an ankle bracelet.This is a low moment for Democrats in California. Those who put their parochial career interests ahead of the public good deserve to be called to account for it.