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Cascade Effect: California’s Prison Release Program

Yes, it’s expensive to keep people in prison, but Californians may one day rediscover that it's even more expensive to let them out.

by
Jack Dunphy

Bio

October 5, 2011 - 12:06 am

Here they come.

Back in May, I wrote about the wave of criminals about to be released from state penitentiaries in California in accordance with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on prison overcrowding. The state is under orders to reduce its inmate population by as many as 30,000, and the implementation of this “prison realignment” began on Saturday, with the first of the so-called “low-risk” state inmates transferred to county jails.

Gov. Jerry Brown did his best to put a happy face on what will surely be a trying time for police officers in California. “It’s bold, it’s difficult, and it will continuously change as we learn from experience, but we can’t sit still and let the courts release 30,000 serious prisoners,” he said.

The greatest share of these prisoners, up to 7,000 of them, are expected to be transferred to jails in Los Angeles County, which, according to the Los Angeles Daily News, have only 4,000 vacant beds. This influx of felons will have a cascade effect, necessitating the early release of county prisoners doing time for misdemeanors and those convicted of felonies but serving jail time as a condition of their probation. And already county jail prisoners are serving only about 20 percent of their sentences behind bars.

Some state prisoners who otherwise would have been placed under the supervision of parole officers upon their release will now be added to the already crowded caseloads of county probation officers, most of whom don’t have a clue about what their charges are up to at any given time. As long as he shows up to his court appearances and checks in by telephone on a semi-regular basis, the typical probationer in Los Angeles has little to fear from his probation officer. He’ll have even less to fear now.

One public official who dares to openly discuss the foreseeable consequences of all of this is Steve Cooley, district attorney of Los Angeles County. “Defendants responsible for a wide variety of felony crimes will escape appropriate sentences,” Cooley said. “The crime rate will predictably and significantly rise.”

One advantage of having served as a cop for as long as I have is seeing everything old become new again. I worked through the horrors of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when Los Angeles averaged more than 800 murders a year and violent crime doubled from the levels seen in the ‘70s. Like other states whose citizens grew weary of crime, California enacted a three-strikes law and other changes to the penal code that resulted in more criminals being locked up for longer periods. And what do you know? As the prisons filled up, crime went down. There were 297 murders in Los Angeles in 2010, the lowest number since 1967, when the city had almost 2 million fewer residents.

But now they tell us we have too many people in jail. So uncivilized, don’t you know, and so expensive to keep them there. So now we’ll be letting them out while we comfort ourselves with the illusion that they’ll be “supervised” in a probation system that can’t adequately mind the caseload it already has. Steve Cooley didn’t need a crystal ball to make his prediction; any fool can see what’s coming.

In some parts of Los Angeles the tide has already turned. Crime continues to fall on a city-wide basis, with murders down 4.5 percent from a year ago and overall violent crime down 7.8 percent. But so far this year, eleven of the LAPD’s 21 patrol divisions have seen increases in murders, with some areas up more than 50 percent. In Pacific Division, for example, which covers Venice and the area surrounding L.A.’s airport, there was but one murder as of Sept. 24, 2010. This year there have been six. In Harbor Division, which covers L.A.’s port area, there had been 13 murders as of this time last year; this year there have been 21. Even some of the relatively tamer districts of the San Fernando Valley have seen marked increases in murders. In Devonshire Division, consistently one of the least violent areas of the city, murders have gone from two to six on a year-to-date basis.

And those numbers will get worse before they get better. As murders and other violent crime increases, the resources needed to combat the surge will be further and further stretched, allowing many criminals to go undetected and undeterred until, as was the case twenty years ago, people decide they’ve had enough and demand their elected officials do something about it.

Yes, it’s expensive to keep people in prison, but Californians will one day discover – or rediscover – it can be even more expensive to let them out.

(Thumbnail based on images from Shutterstock.com.)

Jack Dunphy is the pseudonym of a police officer in Southern California.
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