How Prisoner Release Could Benefit California: Michael Jacobson

July 11 (Bloomberg) -- Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito appealed to fear with their dissents to the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 23 decision ordering California to shed more than 30,000 inmates from its bloated system.

Alito predicted a “grim roster of victims” resulting from willy-nilly early release of prisoners; Scalia imagined tens of thousands of “happy-go-lucky felons” on the loose, many with “intimidating muscles” developed while “pumping iron in the prison gym.” It is true that the court’s decision places the state in a bind, yet it should be an opportunity to carry out proven reforms that will make California’s criminal justice system more just and improve public safety.

The current system, which holds more than 150,000 people in quarters meant for 80,000, is failing both inmates and taxpayers. Although California spends billions on incarceration, its recidivism rate is the second highest in the nation: 58 percent of released inmates return to prison within three years. The Pew Center on the States reports that 40 percent of these returns are for violations of parole rules such as missing appointments with a parole officer or failing a drug test -- not for new crimes.

Governor Jerry Brown understands the scope of the crisis. Even before the Supreme Court weighed in to uphold a lower court order requiring California to cut its prison population, he had proposed easing overcrowding by sending thousands of inmates to county custody -- in other words, by transferring them to local jails. A second proposal would require the counties to assume responsibility for low-risk parolees.

Los Angeles County

Both measures would be accompanied by state money to defray the costs -- but certainly not as much as the state currently spends on its prisons. Los Angeles County, which has historically had an overcrowded jail system, expects to receive under the plan an additional 5,000 to 8,000 incarcerated people annually, along with responsibility for 11,000 to 15,000 more parolees who are potentially just one dirty urine test away from joining them.

Fortunately, there is a way to deal with this influx safely and humanely. Over the past three decades, jurisdictions across the U.S. have ensured that only those who present a genuine threat to public safety fill prison beds, while those who can thrive with supervision and services in the community get the help they need. California officials can begin emulating three steps, starting immediately:

-- Statistical analysis has made it possible to accurately predict who is likely to commit new crimes and who isn’t. California officials, especially at the county level, should put in place risk assessment instruments based on this data to decide who needs to be held and who can be supervised safely in the community. Research has shown that overpunishing offenders who present little risk will in many cases turn them into real threats to public safety. Scarce taxpayer dollars need to be used explicitly for strategies and programs that we know will reduce crime, and not increase it.

-- Invest in a network of community-based services that can serve those released under supervision, including formerly incarcerated people. Workforce development programs or drug treatment can go a long way toward ensuring that people can remain safely in the community. For instance, in a multiyear evaluation of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a transitional jobs program for former prisoners based in New York City, the nonpartisan education and social policy research organization MDRC found significant drops in recidivism, with the strongest reductions for former prisoners who are at the highest risk.

-- Strapped local officials should resist the understandable temptation to use the money that accompanies redirected inmates and parolees for other needed programs, including general services that are being cut. Although public safety need not be as expensive as we currently make it, it can’t be done on the cheap. Besides, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative of the Department of Justice is designed to show that a shift in spending from incarceration to policies like those listed above actually makes communities safer.

The Supreme Court has rightly affirmed that the status quo is unsustainable. No doubt, some people who might be released will commit crimes. Some may even be the intimidating musclemen of Scalia’s imagination. But given that incarceration rates must now go down, Californians have a right to expect their officials will make informed choices -- not freeze in fear. Although the process may seem overwhelming, this is a unique opportunity for the state to re-imagine its criminal justice system and ultimately make its communities safer.

(Michael Jacobson is president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice research group in New York. He served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction from 1995 to 1998 and as probation commissioner from 1992 to 1996. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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