July 14, 2013

Why California won't build prisons to ease inmate overcrowding

In his final effort to forestall a federal court order requiring the state to reduce its prison population by nearly 10,000 inmates, Gov. Jerry Brown last week counted the ways prison conditions have improved since the court first winced at overcrowding years ago.

In his final effort to forestall a federal court order requiring the state to reduce its prison population by nearly 10,000 inmates, Gov. Jerry Brown last week counted the ways prison conditions have improved since the court first winced at overcrowding years ago.

Since 2008, Brown's administration said in a U.S. Supreme Court filing, California has diverted thousands of offenders from the prison system to counties and has spent more than $1 billion on new employees and facilities to improve mental health and medical care for inmates.

Despite pressure to relieve overcrowding, however, there is one thing the state has not done: build more prisons.

Following a construction binge in which the state opened about 20 prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, California has built only one traditional prison since 1997, in Delano in 2005.

The lack of construction reflects a dearth of public support for prison spending, as well as recession-era budget constraints.

"Look, everybody wants to send people to prison. Nobody wants to pay for it," Brown said in January, when he declared at a news conference that California had solved its prison crowding problem.

The governor said limited resources are better spent on education and rehabilitation, and there is "enough money in the criminal justice system."

The state appeared poised to spend substantially more in 2007, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers negotiated passage of Assembly Bill 900, a $7.9 billion plan to add 53,000 beds to the state and local corrections system and expand rehabilitation programs.

The prison-expansion plan was delayed by the recession. Then, following enactment of California's historic prison realignment – in which the state shifted responsibility for thousands of low-level offenders to counties – Brown largely halted it in 2012, anticipating savings of about $4.1 billion in building costs.

What is left of the prison-funding plan includes more than $1 billion to expand county jails. The administration said it has finished dozens of projects to improve dental clinics, medical care and mental health care facilities at its institutions, and it plans to build housing for more inmates on existing prison grounds.

That effort will not add overall capacity but could compensate for beds lost when the state closes a prison, the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, likely by 2016.

"Listen, I argued when I was the chairman of the subcommittee that oversaw state prisons we were long overdue on building new prisons," said former Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, a Republican from Orange who was among AB 900's staunchest supporters. "I think the state has seriously abdicated its responsibility."

Brown: Progress ignored

The issue of capacity has become increasingly significant since 2009, when a three-judge panel found health care in the prison system to be unconstitutionally inadequate, primarily because of overcrowding.

The panel ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity – an order the U.S. Supreme Court upheld – and in recent weeks demanded that California immediately comply. The order would force the state to reduce its inmate population by the end of the year to about 110,000 prisoners, down from about 119,000.

"The history of this litigation is of defendants' repeated failure to take the necessary steps to remedy the constitutional violations in its prison system," the panel wrote.

Brown last week asked the Supreme Court for a stay. Focusing on prison capacity, the administration argued, ignores steps the state has taken to resolve underlying conditions related to mental health and medical care.

Last month, for example, the state completed construction of an $839 million medical facility in Stockton to care for sick inmates.

"I ask you this: Does what you see behind me today, is that deliberate indifference?" Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said at a celebratory event.

"We believe that we are providing at least a constitutional level of care, and in some cases more than a constitutional level of care to the inmates, and this facility will help us to continue to exceed a constitutional standard."

If not the court, the public is likely sympathetic to Brown's position. Voters approved more than $2 billion in general-obligation prison bonds between 1981 and 1990, during the height of prison construction under Gov. George Deukmejian.

But support for prison construction has receded in the years since, as the nonpartisan Field Poll has routinely found spending on corrections operations to be among Californians' lowest priorities.

"Deukmejian, you know, ran for governor on being tough on crime and locking up prisoners," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll. "The question is, when did public support wane enough so that they wouldn't pass a prison bond, and it probably was in the 1990s."

Later decades have been marked by a historic decline in crime. The electorate is more concerned about education and the economy, and in this California is not unique.

"What we're seeing is not only a California trend that has been going on for about 20 years, but it's a national trend," said Barry Krisberg, former president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "Every single public opinion poll that's been done over the past 20 years, nationally and in California and other states, shows the public is not interested in increasing the corrections budget."

Brown called 'a cheapskate'

Krisberg, who lectures at University of California, Berkeley, said one reason the public is disinterested in prison spending is its belief that prisons house a certain number of inmates who are not dangerous and could be put in alternative programs.

The impact of incarceration on recidivism and overall crime rates is debated, too.

"Beds don't reduce crime," said Donald Spector, director of the Prison Law Office, which represents inmates in the crowding case. "The more effective use of money is to try to punish prisoners in other ways while you're trying to correct their behavior so they don't do it again." He said, "I think Schwarzenegger was a little more moderate on this issue than (Pete) Wilson and Deukmejian, and Brown is more of a cheapskate than either of the two."

Among advocates of additional jail capacity has been the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union representing prison guards. Chuck Alexander, the group's executive vice president, said California will be forced by simple population growth to consider building more prison or jail space now that the budget is beginning to stabilize.

"As long as California's population continues to rise," he said, "you're going to need more housing, more schooling, more hospitals, more roads, more prison beds."

The prospect for funding construction of new prisons in the current Legislature is dim. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said last week that it would be "a public policy mistake for us to spend more money on building more jail beds as opposed to more mental health services or mental health beds outside the prisons."

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said a majority of lawmakers are "oblivious to the crime wave and the injustices being visited upon the citizens they represent today by ignoring this solution of more facilities for incarceration." He said he'd rather spend money on prisons than high-speed rail.

Nielsen, a former state Board of Prison Terms chairman, acknowledged those lawmakers' view is consistent with public opinion, however. "I think that right at the moment, sadly, the public are not enough aware of the risk that they have been subjected to. They will be, and I predict once that critical moment occurs there will be a stampede of, 'What in the world did you do this to us for?' "

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders. The Bee's Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report.

Related content



Editor's Choice Videos