May has been a tough month for Californians worried about the costs associated with fixing their dangerously overcrowded prison system. The state started the month paying more per prisoner than all but five other states, for total yearly corrections spending of more than $7 billion.
To spend its money more wisely, California needs to concentrate parole supervision resources on those released inmates who present the greatest risk to society. Nonviolent parole violators should be managed with community-supervision strategies and by providing rehabilitation that addresses the problems most commonly associated with recidivism.
Early in the month — to head off imminent court-mandated prisoner discharges — Gov. Schwarzenegger signed AB 900, legislation that provides $7.8 billion to build space for 53,000 prison and jail beds. Operating those facilities will cost state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more every year.
Californians weathered the expense, no doubt believing that the correctional system's painfully high costs are better than allowing offenders to remain in their communities. But 90 percent of the current 172,000 state prisoners eventually will be released back into the community — with 115,000 parolees released to their original communities each year.
What will happen to these parolees? In California, history suggests that the overwhelming majority will fail to stay out of prison. Joan Petersillia, former director of the RAND Corp. Criminal Justice program, calculates that almost 70 percent return to prison within 24 months of their release. This further drives up inmate populations and forces Californians to consider still more prison construction, higher operating costs and skyrocketing prison health-care expenses.
The 70 percent failure rate for parolees is extraordinarily high, almost twice as high as the national average. This should prompt sensible citizens to ask why. Among many factors contributing to such high criminal recidivism, two stand out as particularly grievous but fixable.
First, California is unique in requiring nearly all discharged prisoners to receive parole supervision, usually for three years. RAND research shows that concentrating parole resources on the most dangerous offenders and those most likely to re-offend can significantly reduce violent crime. Instead of targeting parole resources in this way, however, California spreads them thinly across the entire released-prisoner population.
Second, although California vigorously tests parolees for evidence of illicit substance use, it offers substance-abuse-treatment services to just 2 percent of the prison population. This happens despite estimates that as many as two-thirds of that population needs treatment.
In addition, California does not offer parolees adequate educational, vocational, mental health or other rehabilitation services, even though the costs of such services would be partially or fully offset by reductions in prison costs.
These problems can be fixed with a combination of smarter, more-targeted parole supervision and community-based rehabilitation and offender-supervision services. Experience with Prop. 36, approved by voters in 2000, has shown that nonviolent substance-abusing offenders can be managed in the community with a combination of treatment and supervision — at a tremendous cost savings.
State leaders are in the thick of the budget process right now — and cuts to Prop. 36 treatment programs are on the table. Taking funds needed for new rehabilitation- and community-supervision programs and using them to build new prison beds is a costly and shortsighted solution to the problem of soaring prisoner populations and rising corrections costs.
This commentary originally appeared in Riverside Press-Enterprise on May 27, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.