It looks like California’s vast system of corrections is finally headed for some well-deserved, er, corrections. Hallelujah! It’s well past time for the state’s prison and parole system, with its shocking recidivism rates, to be put under the microscope and made to reform.
Recent hearings at the Capitol—orchestrated by Senators Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough—are revealing just how out-of-control things have gotten with our prisons, with scathing evidence of corruption, perjury and secrecy at high levels of the very system that’s supposed to protect the citizenry from crime.
Make no mistake: This drama has the prison guards’ powerful union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), at center stage. The CCPOA is notorious for protecting its own, for throwing around its political weight by making large campaign contributions to politicians—like former Governors Gray Davis and Pete Wilson—who support its agenda, while also spending millions to defeat politicians who question it. The most recent example of this was in 2002 when, despite enormous deficits, Davis and the Legislature actually gave 37-percent raises, over five years, to the guards. (Note to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: You reversed the car tax. Why not save $518 million a year by reversing the part of this raise that hasn’t been paid out yet?)
In this time of budget slashing in programs for the poor and sick, legislators also should use the prison hearings as an opportunity to take a look at the significant sums of money that could be trimmed from the corrections budget. First, they must get the system to deal aggressively with the fact that two-thirds of the 160,000 convicts now in the state’s prison system leave and then return while on parole, mostly because they violated parole conditions. With a recidivism rate of 56 percent, California is returning more parole violators to prison than is any other state in the nation. As is done effectively in many other states, nonviolent offenders can be sent to private and county drug-treatment centers, saving money and reducing crime. Of course, the CCPOA has a long history of objecting to such programs.
Another way to save big money in the prison system would be to deal with the fact that the state’s prison system has become a nursing home for elderly and sick inmates. Predictably, as inmates age, the taxpayer cost per year skyrockets. It takes $26,000 per year to house the average adult prisoner, but its takes $47,000 once that inmate turns 60.
Hopefully, the hearings will begin a process to rein in California’s rogue corrections system. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger’s new corrections secretary, Rod Hickman, had best join forces with those demanding the shakeup. Now is clearly an opportune time to confront our out-of-control and expensive corrections system and to demote the self-important and overbearing guards’ union.