As early as 2007, I wrote about the impending release of thousands of prisoners from the California state prison system. To date some 40,000 prisoners have either been transferred to local county jails or released to the streets with the state's assurance that they are "non-violent offenders." This was a feckless policy that was fueled both by the state in its effort to balance its budget and by a panel of federal judges who sided with the ACLU and other groups that were acting as champions of prisoner rights. The state, of course, took advantage of the legal ruling to place at least partial blame for these releases and transfers on the federal court. The prisoners and special interests groups won; the good people of this state lost and are still paying the price with increased violence, property crimes and a high rate of auto thefts.
There was at least one alternative to releasing the 40,000+ prisoners into our communities, but when former Governor Schwarzenegger tried to transfer prisoners to much lower cost prisons in other states, the correctional officers' labor group sued in court and won to stop such transfers. The losers? You guessed it right - the good people of California.
And now to add insult to injury, the panel of federal judges has recently ordered the "immediate" release of yet another 10,000 prisoners. As I stated previously, according to state statistics, 40,000 prisoners have already either been early-released into our communities or transferred to local county jails. We have no way of knowing if the number is truly 40,000 or if the information has been sanitized to make the situation less repulsive to the public. The county jails, of course, are already jammed with inmates that were formerly imprisoned in state facilities, so the only option is to release a number of inmates equivalent to 10,000 to make room for the mass transfer that is about to take place. As logic would dictate, and if we are to believe that the prisoners still in jail (after the previous mass release) are the violent ones that the state pledged to protect us from, then we can conclude that violent former prisoners will soon be let loose to victimize our community. This is like the mass jail breaks that we have read about in the Middle East, but in our case, it is our own government that is doing this. It is a strange concept, but it appears to be true.
A consequence of this government-made prison crisis is that local jails can rarely accept a criminal for booking by the local police for new crimes committed. Accordingly, local criminals have little to fear. In fact, when under arrest, they frequently joke with officers that being arrested is no big deal since there will be no real consequences for them. With the additional releases pending, I see a very dark future for the safety and security of people living in California - especially those living lower and middle class lifestyles. The more affluent areas of this state will not feel the bite as much. And it is not lost on me that the people who make the destructive policies, federal judges included, tend to be more affluent that the rest of us.
There are several issues that have influenced, if not caused, the crisis. One is how the word "overcrowding" has been defined by the courts, and the other has to do with a court ruling that disallows the transfer of California's overflow prisoners to underutilized prisons in other states. Of course, it is also quite apparent that prison planning and construction has not kept up with California's population growth.
The debate about the definition of the word "overcrowding" is based on the United States Constitution, which requires that persons convicted of crimes shall not be subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment." The ACLU has been at the forefront of protecting the rights of prisoners by filing lawsuits against the state prison system for various things, including their contention that too many prisoners are assigned to places that are too small. Thus, the ACLU asserts, these inmates are being punished in a "cruel and unusual" fashion. These arguments are subjective, of course. Prisons were never intended to be substitutes for everyday outside life, yet, if an organization like the ACLU had its unbridled way, prisoners would be living rather comfortably. It is a matter of perspective; some people think that prison should be an uncomfortable place to be. Hence, this kind of punishment should serve as a deterrent to crime. Others believe that prisons should have as little discomfort as possible for the inmates; the ACLU sides with the latter group. While few would agree that prisons should be unhealthy or inhumane, most law-abiding people think that prisons should have a certain uncomfortable repulsion factor, creating a deterrent for law violators.
These early releases will send the wrong message for sure, for law abiding people and criminals alike. It is an invitation to commit more crime. Some will assert that sentencing reform is necessary and that it will be the answer to the overcrowding problem. There is some truth to this, but it is a panacea borne of ignorance and utopian thinking. Sentencing reform is an enormously complex issue that will take years to reconcile. The crisis is here and now, and it cannot wait for what will prove to be a laborious, contentious and highly-politicized legislative process. Regardless, sentencing reform will have only a limited [positive] impact on the problem - certainly not enough of one to make a substantial difference in the overcrowding situation, especially since the courts seem to believe that prisoner housing should be anything but uncomfortable or punitive in any way.
There will be plenty of effort made by the various politicians and others involved in this prison debacle to have the state's population believe that the prisoners being released early pose no threat. Obviously, they do pose a threat, or they would not have been incarcerated in the first place. Furthermore, the final offense that led to their prison sentence might, indeed, have been non-violent, but the probability is that their past was rich with all kinds of crimes, violent ones included. Each of these convicts has likely left a string of numerous victims in their wakes. We must remember that most people who end up in prison commit many crimes before ever getting caught. And once caught for those crimes, it may take multiple convictions before ending up in a state institution.
The problem we now have results from politics, prison funding shortfalls, lack of proper prison infrastructure planning at the state level and special interest group intervention. State prison officials are handcuffed from using the obvious solution of transferring these prisoners to other states. The aforementioned and prisoner "rights" are at the forefront of the prison overcrowding problem. I have to ask: what about your rights to be free from harm and victimization? Have you noticed that this debate, as it has taken place in the various public forums and in the media, make few, if any, references to the impact this release situation has on law-abiding people? The rights of law-abiding people should be first and foremost, not to be trampled on by politics, legal wrangling or the desires of special interest groups.
As these releases continue, those who are still incarcerated will be more comfortable in their cells, enjoying what some refer to as their "vacations." State officials, both appointed and elected, are able to rest comfortably now that the problem has been "solved" - their legal vulnerability is being reduced. The problem falls squarely on the shoulders of local law enforcement, courts, and our local jails. Most importantly, work-a-day people are suffering at the hands of these criminals while the police are becoming increasingly frustrated.
This overcrowding problem and the impending release these prisoners can be stopped. It is in the hands of our state lawmakers to pass legislation giving state prison officials and the governor the appropriate scope and range of authority to properly address the problem. And the only way the legislators will act is if they receive sufficient pressure from those who put them in office.
As a local law enforcement official, I am highly concerned about what has been happening as thousands of prisoners are released back into society. The people of California must educate themselves about this very serious issue and demand that state-elected officials take action.