Thursday, January 7, 2010

State of (the) Prisons: Thoughts on State of the State Speech

Here are some initial thoughts about the Governor's speech, in no particular order:

It seems that, in general the Governor's heart is in the right place. It is, indeed, disturbing that our budget allocates more money to education than to corrections. However, the solution he advocates--contracting with private companies for out-of-state housing rather than releasing prisoners--is disappointing and may backfire in the budgetary sense.

It is telling that the press release emphasizes, in bold letters, that the new measure prohibits releasing prisoners as a way of cutting costs. The rhetoric is, of course, familiar. The press release plays on public concerns by invoking the image of prison doors opening and tens of thousands of dangerous criminals walking out. However, as we recall from the original Governor's proposal back in May, Schwarzenegger himself proposed several important measures, such as good work credits, alternatives to parole violation measures, and some legislative changes to allow prosecuting some current felonies as misdemeanors. Do these measures count as "inmate release"? No proposal ever intended to do what the Governor's rhetoric suggests - opening the doors and letting massive amounts of inmates walk out - but all proposals, from the Plata/Coleman panel order to the CDCR plan to the plan advocated by the Governor himself, adopted such measures to reduce prison population. Does this new measure preclude only mindless mass releases, or also sensible reform? Will we still see these healthy steps occurring, in addition to privatization and prisoner export?

The other important question is whether exporting our inmates to other states, and paying for their incarceration there, is really cost-effective. In a blog post yesterday, Jonathan Simon characterizes this fiscal measure as "reducing spending on prisoners, not . . . reducing prisoners." But does out-of-state incarceration really reduce expenditure per inmate in the long run? I have tried to find studies that compare recidivism rates between in-state and out-of-state inmates, and have not found anything. Perhaps this dearth of research stems from some methodological issues; as this study demonstrates, it is very difficult to measure the link between mode of incarceration and recidivism, because recidivism might be linked to factors that also led to differential incarceration modes. The out-of-state issue presents additional complications, as demonstrated by this Ohio study; it is difficult to measure recidivism across states, given the differences between different state criminal codes. Nevertheless, these methodological issues do not present insurmountable hurdles, and it would be an interesting exercise to conduct a study that examines whether out-of-state incarceration increases recidivism. In formulating an (empirically untested as of yet) hypothesis about this, it would stand to reason that when someone is incarcerated far away from family and friends, and has no support system, one stands on a less solid ground upon release and is therefore more likely to reoffend. If our readers have other opinions on the subject, we look forward to reading them in the comment section.

We know more, however, about recidivism rate comparisons between private- and public-prison-housed inmates. This Florida study, for example, found no significant differences between inmates housed in private and public facilities. As the authors say, any argument on behalf of privatization should be based solely on costs, not on rehabilitative potential. I would add that, given our concerns about sustainability in the long run, opting for a privatized system should also examine whether the volume of prisoners is likely to remain the same, which will necessitate continued reliance on out-of-state private institutions for our inmates for many years to come.

Another aspect of this issue is the broader national disparity between states who house their prisoners out-of-state and states who farm out their prisons and make business off of other states. In a previous post by Jesse, we briefly discussed this ACLU report, which praises Michigan for achieving a 8% prison population reduction by closing down eight prisons and relying heavily on reentry mechanisms. The irony is, of course, that while these commendable policies are helping Michigan get out of the political logjam and solve its own correctional crisis, Michigan is exploiting our inability to do the same by trying to rent out its prisons to us. I find this rather grim and thought provoking.

Finally, in reading the Governor's proposal, I want to suggest that while the new measure might prohibit releasing prisons to release cost, it certainly does not prohibit doing so in order to comply with court orders. Assuming that the Supreme Court will not overturn the Plata/Coleman decision, there is still hope that at least some of the population reduction will be achieved by strategies that tackle not only population rates, but recidivism rates.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Governor's plan.

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