Faced with a $14 billion budget deficit next year, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering a proposal to slash ballooning prison spending by granting early release to some 22,000 nonviolent, non-sex offender inmates. The proposal would also cut the state's prison population by another 6,000 by changing the way parole violations are handled. But Schwarzenegger has not approved the proposal, and it is already generating political opposition.
With some 172,000 inmates, California's prison system is second only to the federal system in size, and its budget has ballooned by 79% in the last five years to nearly $8 billion. Still, the system is vastly overcrowded and faces two federal class-action suits seeking to cap inmate populations because overcrowding is resulting in the state not delivering constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care.
According to the California Department of Corrections' latest prisoner census, more than 35,000, or 20.6%, of those prisoners are doing time for drug offenses. Drug offenders, property offenders, and "other" nonviolent offenders together account for half the state prison population.
Under the plan, presented to the governor's office by his departmental budget managers, low-risk offenders with fewer than 20 months left in their sentences would be released early. That would save the state about $250 million in the coming fiscal year and more than $780 million through June 2010, according to the Sacramento Bee, which first broke the story last week. It would also involve cutting some 4,000 prison jobs, mostly for the state's highly paid prison guards, whose base salary is nearly $60,000 a year.
The proposal also calls for a "summary" parole system, where released offenders would remain under supervised release, but would not be returned to prison for technical parole violations, such as dirty drug tests or missing an appointment, but only if they are convicted of a new crime. Moving to a summary system would cut the average parole population by 18,500 in the next fiscal year and reduce the prison population by another 6,250, according to the proposal. It would also cost about 1,660 parole jobs. Altogether, changes in the parole system would save the state $329 million through June 2010.
While such a proposal would be groundbreaking if enacted, the odds appear long. Queried by the press after the Bee broke the story, Schwarzenegger spokesman Bill Maile said the governor had not decided if he liked the idea or not. "The governor asked his department heads to work with their budget managers to find ways to cut the budget by 10% because of the budget crisis we are facing, and this idea was one of many that was floated in reaction to that request," Maile said. "It's not a proposal yet, just an idea."
Early reaction from the political class has not been good. Rep. Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), head of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said Democratic reaction would range from skepticism to outright opposition. "Many of us are going to have some very strong concerns about whether it's the direction we want to begin taking," Solorio told the Bee in a followup story. Early releases are "DOA" with Assembly Republicans, he added.
Republican Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), one of his party's criminal justice leaders, said early releases would undermine recently enacted Assembly Bill 900, a $7.9 billion measure that will add 53,000 jail and prison beds, but also establish rehabilitation as the philosophical underpinning of the state's prison system.
"By letting people out 20 months early, which is supposed to be when they get their reentry skills, they're not going to get them at all, so recidivism is going to get worse," Spitzer said. "This budget plan is a forfeiture of AB 900 principles, which was supposed to change how we treat criminality in California."
Republican political consultant Ray McNally was even more dramatic. "It's pretty clear, the governor has decided not to run for US Senate or other political office," said McNally, whose clients include the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. "You can't release 22,000 people from prison and expect to ever get elected to another office again. I think he's made his decision to retire from politics."
If Schwarzenegger braves the firestorm and adopts the proposal, he will probably include it in budget filings next month. If the proposal makes it to the final appropriations bill, that bill must pass with a two-thirds vote. There is a long way to go, but this proposal at least acknowledges that there might be a better path than just building more prisons.