Friday, March 20, 2009

Defining the Problem

The conference launched yesterday to a great start. Our first panel, Defining the Problem, featured five thoughtful perspectives on the broad picture of the California problem.

Craig Haney, who opened the panel, had some disturbing realities to share with us. He had brought with him - and shared with us on the big screen - pictures from his visits to prison, each of which was really worth a thousand words. Inmates sleeping in cafeterias and gyms; medical examinations conducted in little cages; group therapy in cages inside a bathroom; triple bunks; and unbelievable density. The numbers were quite alarming. While the prisons become more and more overcrowded, crime rates have gone down; as Haney explained, most experts agreed that the rising imprisonment rates did not account for the crime decline. Also, the gap between prison population and prison capacity keeps growing. Haney did a terrific job of tying the California situation to the broader U.S. correctional disease, while highlighting the particulars that made CA a unique situation; particularly, the truly disappointing percentages of people exposed to rehabilitation programs and receiving medical care. And, as per one of the slides in his presentation, we got yet another sobering look at the expanding gaps between non-minorities and minorities in terms of their exposure to the correctional system.

Jeanne Woodford marshaled her extensive experience in prison management to identify three main sources for California's misery: sentencing policies, uniform policies, and overcrowding. She traced the history of determinate sentencing since the late seventies, pointing to the many deficiencies of our penal code. She also pointed out the lack of coordination between jurisdictions regarding implementation of correctional policies, highlighting the following amazing fact (which I didn't know): a person could be - and many people are - on probation in several different counties simultaneously, in which case one spends one's post-incarceration time shuttling between counties several weeks for drug testing and following often contradictory courses of action. Without fact-based policies, and without clear objectives for incarceration beyond "punishment", wardens and staff cannot be assessed by desirable measures such as decline in recidivism rates or program completion, but rather by how many prisoners escape; not a promising recipe for healthy corrections. Finally, Woodford discussed the fact that overcrowding is not only a problem in itself; it is a complicated factor which exacerbates everything else that happens in the system.

Harold Atkins
from Centerforce was cheered by the audience after providing us with a valuable personal account of the problem from the perspective of one who had gone through it and who now reaches out and educates others. Having gone into prison for the first time as a young adult, he told us of being shocked not only by the lack of personal space, but also by the lack of safety. He also highlighted not only on prison conditions but also on the success of programs; the good fortune to be picked up for a program does not fall into the lap of many, and the programs' reach is very minimal. The programs themselves, Atkins reminded, should not be implemented without thought; we must test them repeatedly to see what works and make them as widely available as possible. Another thing to consider are his wise words regarding the norms and codes that lead young people into prison; growing up in a difficult neighborhood, at the time of his incarceration he had already been well-schooled in the rules by which prison environment functions. Much of the educational work we have ahead of us needs to happen on the outside.

Frank Zimring followed by delivering a passionate "grumpy sermon" from the podium, in which he shared four important insights. First, the California problem is not an acute one; it is a chronic one. Prison population has been steadily growing for a long time, since the 1980s. Second, and importantly, the problem can be traced to the catastrophic error Zimring labeled the "correctional free lunch". As Zimring pointed out - and as most amazed audience members had not known before - the "division of labor" between county and state is not conducive to anything helpful. The county decides on the sentence, while the state (who, in the era of determinate sentencing has no control over the length of stay) picks up the cost. Therefore, sentencing does not take into account the broader correctional costs. If this was not shocking enough, the third and fourth insights have to do with the deeper causes for these horrors: they were not part of a broad conspiracy, but rather a combination of complete oversight on the part of the politicians who established determinate sentencing and the logical conclusion of direct democracy in california: citizens do not mind paying to let people rot, but they very much mind paying to make their life nicer. One important answer advocated by Zimring was to establish, as soon as possible, a coherent Penal code, which is not full of "pick and choose" voter-approved policies and special laws, and which is updated to reflect the real severity of crimes.

After these, CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate had his work cut out for him, and his reply reflected the kind of concern and thoughtfulness that one expects from someone in charge of a system in serious crisis. The overcrowding challenge, he argued, made everything in prison more difficult, and required serious prioritizing of services. He shared the big dilemmas faced by CDCR in light of the gubernatorial 400,000,000 budget cut. Cutting all programs was not an option, and curring staff was also problematic; one possible answer to the cuts was engage in parole reform. In tems of parole reform, said Cate, we need to pay attention to who we place on parole, and rather than using a general parole policy, reserve parole for serious offenders through identification of crime types (unsurprisingly, sex offenders came up) or more efficient crime indexing. We also need to consider the introduction of credits for achievement in programs on the inside as categories for release. Cate also advocated building more prison cells, particularly for the Level 4 population, as part of the plan to alleviate overcrowding and treat inmates humanely. One thing he had come to learn, said Cate, was that with the given resources - that is, reliance on state employees - capacity would never catch up with population, and community assistance was hugely important.

The audience asked some difficult questions, many of which were addressed to Secretary Cate. One such question involved the elderly and frail prisoners, and whether release policies were not better for this group than creating special wards for them. The other problem raised was that, while prisoners are generally assessed for their medical, mental, dental, and vocational needs, it is very difficult (and, as Atkins' experience shows, rare) to actually match a prisoner with a befitting program. Another important issue, directed at Zimring, involved an attempt to gauge an "acceptable" number of prisons, which turns out to be a very difficult number to produce.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

if a person is on probation, even felony probation, and have completed all terms of their probation except financial payments including giving more than a dozen clean drug tests done radonmly twice a month; you'd think they would cut that person some slack, especially for a first time offender; but no! they (judge, lawyers, etc.) want to add to the overcrowding and send someone who should be released from probation (they can continue making financial restitution)but they did their time for their crime let them go and don't add more people to an already overcrowded prison.