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Reduce the prison population, preserve public safety?

California's massive change to the state's jail, prison and parole system is coming

During the early years of the last century Carl Gustav Jung wrote about something he called "synchronicity." This is a convergence of two or more relatively inconsequential or innocuous things that take on a much, much bigger meaning because of the exact timing and circumstances that exist at the moment.

The residents and taxpayers (two different but somewhat overlapping groups) of the formerly great state of California recently experienced synchronicity. It came about due to the convergence of a SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) decision, a change in the California constitution made last year by ballot initiative and a promise made by Governor Jerry Brown during his campaign for governor.

Within the last two months the Supreme Court upheld a decision by the 9th Circuit that ordered the state to reduce the prison population to 110,000 within two years. This is necessary according to the court to render proper medical care to inmates. There are in fact some new beds that may come available within that period of time and this would (presumably) tick that 110,000 number up as long as the medical infrastructure would accommodate the new bed space.

The state has under construction a huge, 1,722-bed prison hospital just outside of Stockton, Calif., and a re-entry facility of about 800 beds on the same property. A second hospital of 1,500-plus beds is planned for the same property in the foreseeable future. In addition some DJJ (Division of Juvenile Justice, the old California Young Authority) facilities are being converted for adult use.

All of this may make a significant dent in the numbers, though availability within the required time frame is not ensured. The state seems certain to be forced to move about 33,000 inmates from state prisons in the relatively near future.

Realignment is the current buzzword for the governor's plan for the corrections system. It is a multi-pronged approach aimed at reducing the prison population while theoretically preserving public safety.

A small part of it is already operational. The Division of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO) has already enacted a recently passed law aimed at reducing the number of parolees returned to custody (RTCd) for "minor" criminal offenses while on parole. A whole new type of parole, called Non-revocable parole (NRP) has been initiated. These parolees are still subject to parole search but cannot be returned to prison administratively. They have to commit, and be convicted of, a new crime to be sent back to prison.

The governor vetoed the first budget the day after it was passed, a this-never-happened-before moment. This was in agreement with a promise he made to not sign an unbalanced smoke-and-mirrors budget. The Controller, John Chiang, therefore refused to pay the members of the legislature for time put in after June 15, as required by Proposition 25 passed by the voters last year. This represents about $400 per day in pay and expenses for each legislator for each day they are not paid.

On June 28 the legislature passed a new budget, one prepared with direct input from the governor. He signed it promptly after it was presented to him. The new budget still has many challenges despite the governor's signature.

It has a rural parcel tax to fund rural fire protection. As it is part of a budget package passed by a simple majority vote rather than 2/3 majority it may face a court challenge which may keep it from being implemented. The new budget includes $200 million from a so-called Amazon tax which assumes that the state will be able to collect that much sales tax from out-of-state on-line sales.

That may not happen. It also includes an additional $12 per vehicle in registration fees, which may be subject to court review for the same reason as the rural parcel tax. The new budget further assumes that a recent bump in tax revenue will continue throughout the new fiscal year, to the tune of $4 billion. This seems to be optimistic. The new budget assumes a total of $4 billion in revenue which easily may not appear.

The new budget does, however, fund the governor's realignment plan. It diverts 1.06 percent of the state sales tax of 7.25 percent to local jurisdictions to fund their providing parole supervision services and housing of many convicted felons in local jails. The state parole system is on record as saying they believe they will have an 80 percent cutback in parole staffing over the next three years.

The local sheriffs complain (accurately) that most of the jails are already operating under a population cap and that housing convicted felons in their jails for up to three years will drastically decrease their housing for pre-trial detainees and convicted misdemeanants.

That plan may also seriously reduce the number of state prison inmates available as fire fighters. These inmates have been a very valuable and cost effective resource which local jurisdictions may not be able to operate effectively, if at all.

There may, or may not, be despair and grief on the horizon for the state of California in general, depending on what happens over the next six months to state finances. It is, however, certain that the next three years will bring massive change to the state's jail, prison and parole system. Whether these changes will benefit the residents and taxpayers of the state is an open question, and will remain so for years to come.

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