TOPICS > Politics

Paying for Crime

February 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now solving budget problems at the state level in this country by cutting spending for prisons. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET in Los Angeles reports on the situation in California.

JEFFREY KAYE: Over the last 20 years, California state prisons have been a growth industry. As the inmate population swelled, the state built, on average, one prison a year. Today, about 160,000 inmates are packed into 33 state prisons. The annual bill for the overcrowded system is $5 billion a year. But with the California state government facing its biggest deficit in history– it could be as much as $35 billion in the red– many lawmakers are advocating what would have been politically unthinkable not long ago: Cutting the budget for prisons.

SPOKESPERSON: The budget gives us an opportunity to examine the success and the failures of our corrections system.

JEFFREY KAYE: California State Sen. Gloria Romero, of Los Angeles, chairs a new legislative committee evaluating California’s prison system. She says it’s time to scrutinize prisons since just about every other California state program is being cut.

STATE SEN. GLORIA ROMERO: It’s not just cutting. It is literally slashing services for poor people, for children, for the elderly. How do we explain the slashing of these services at a time when one department, in particular corrections, is actually enjoying an increase in funding?

JEFFREY KAYE: Romero is particularly critical of what she considers a broken and costly parole system. California recycles inmates at the highest rates in the nation. On a recent morning at the storied San Quentin prison in Northern California, men released on parole boarded a van bound for freedom. But based on statistics, most will soon be back. Soon after one group of inmates left, another arrived, all of them parolees being readmitted, like James Murphy; 20 days after being released on parole, he was back in for petty theft.

JAMES MURPHY: They had no place for me to go, nowhere. As soon as I hit the streets, I had nowhere to go– nowhere.

SPOKESMAN: What’s your last name? What’s your number?

JEFFREY KAYE: Two-thirds of the inmates in California state prisons returned while on parole, many with new charges; most because they violated parole conditions. Housing them is costly, an average of $28,500 a year for each inmate. To save money, some democratic legislators favor programs that would return fewer parolees to prison. They also want to release many non-violent convicts one month early, and others for good behavior.

STATE SEN. GLORIA ROMERO: People who have completed their programs, if they’ve accumulated good-time credits and they’re able to be released, individuals who would be assessed as basically not being a harm to society. We don’t want to release individuals who will be a harm to society, but those who are good candidates for release.

JEFFREY KAYE: Those “good candidates,” according to Romero, include the system’s many elderly and sick inmates.

SPOKESPERSON: Are you allergic to any antibiotics?

JEFFREY KAYE: California’s prisoners have much higher rates than the general population of substance abuse, mental illness, tuberculosis, Hepatitis C, and HIV.

STATE SEN. GLORIA ROMERO: And remember that many prisoners will come into the system not being in the best of health to begin with. We are now no longer just a corrections agency. We are essentially the nursing home for prisoners in California.

STEPHEN GREEN: Even though many of them have serious infirmities, they have very serious criminal backgrounds. And they have time to serve, they have a debt to pay to society, and they need to serve it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Stephen Green speaks for the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency and for the Democratic governor, Gray Davis.

GOV. GRAY DAVIS: So I propose this year that we will put even more police officers and sheriffs deputies on the streets.

JEFFREY KAYE: Davis has long prided himself on his uncompromising “tough on crime” policies, and has come out in strong opposition to early release programs.

STEPHEN GREEN: I think the debate is really framed wrongly. Sentencing is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about letting people out early. If we have sentencing laws that are unjust, then those laws ought to be repealed as a matter of fairness. But simply to say, “Well, in good times we can have tough sentencing laws; in poor times, we’ll have to let the crooks out” — that doesn’t make any sense to me.

JEFFREY KAYE: Green says early- release programs won’t work. He points to Kentucky, which released nearly 900 prisoners early. But after revelations that new parolees had been charged with bank robbery and rape, public outrage forced an embarrassed governor to cancel the program. In California, law enforcement officials are skeptical about early-release proposals. Police in the City of Oakland, grappling with a high crime rate, have linked parolees to half of last year’s 113 murders. Oakland’s police chief, Richard Ward, says under the current system, an early-release program could be a costly mistake.

CHIEF RICHARD WARD: It just doesn’t make to me. If you have a burglar in custody and he or she is sentenced for nine months, and you say to this burglar, “we’re going to let you out early, within six months,” he’s still a burglar. And mind you, what have you done to ensure that this person would not re-offend — probably not much. And that needs to… that’s the question we should ask.

JEFFREY KAYE: That question is rekindling an old debate about punishment versus rehabilitation for prisoners. Chief Ward says early release would make sense only if inmates were truly ready to face the outside world.

CHIEF RICHARD WARD: If they’re ill-prepared, if they haven’t had any job training or substance abuse counseling, or whatever the need is, if those needs have not been addressed, you’re turning people loose into communities. More than likely, they’ll commit rimes. So there’s a cost on the other end.

STATE SEN. GLORIA ROMERO: And that becomes, again, to the question overall: What is the function of our prisons — knowing that the vast majority will ultimately be released. I do believe that we can incarcerate, and as we incarcerate, attempt to rehabilitate.

JEFFREY KAYE: Romero says it may be time to change the California law, which spells out the prison system’s main mission. “The purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment,” it says.

SPOKESMAN: All students, back to school.

JEFFREY KAYE: Convicts say that the emphasis on punishment translates to too few programs on the inside to prepare inmates for release, and too little assistance on the outside for parolees.

FREDERICK SMITH, Inmate: And once they’re on parole, there’s virtually nothing out there to give them an incentive to stay out. The system is sort of set up to be self-defeating; to keep a perpetual revolving door going of prisoners.

KEN RUSSO, Inmate: Parole is designed to ease your transition back to prison. It’s not designed for your transition into society. You can’t give a man $200 and say, “okay, there you go. Take care of business now.”

EVANS YANCY, Inmate: There’s no rehabilitation no more. It’s designed now just to warehouse people. This is nothing but one big warehouse. And they ain’t nobody getting fat, but the government.

SPOKESPERSON: What we’re going to do today, which some of you know, is we’re going to talk about how you can get off parole…

JEFFREY KAYE: Parole agents, who supervise released convicts, have low expectations. In Oakland, one of the few existing state programs for parolees tries to match up former inmates with jobs, housing, and drug treatment programs.

SPOKESMAN: Some of you guys I know; you’ve been on my caseload. Some of you guys I’ve even arrested in your homes…

JEFFREY KAYE: But parole agent D.R. Elliott, a veteran prison guard, says without more jobs and assistance for ex-cons, the revolving door will keep turning. For his own caseload, only 25 out of 72 inmates got off parole.

JEFFREY KAYE: Twenty-five out of seventy-two doesn’t sound like a great grade.

D.R. ELLIOTT: It’s, you know, to you it doesn’t. But like I said before, one — if I get one to stay out, I’ve done all right, because he’s going to help somebody else and somebody else. And what he’s going to do, he’s going to talk to his kids. He’s going to talk to somebody else’s kids. And that’s where we start it again. We start at the kids, we work our way up.

TEACHER: You’re going to have to multiply here…

JEFFREY KAYE: California prison officials say they’d provide more rehabilitation if they had more money. The few educational programs that do exist in California prisons are being cut. At the same time, the prison budget is increasing for such expenses as medical care, prison maintenance, and salaries for prison guards.