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The complex link between incarceration and public safety

CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard addresses reporters May 3, 2013, the morning after Gov. Brown released his prison reduction plan.

CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard addresses reporters May 3, 2013, the morning after Gov. Brown released his prison reduction plan.

CDCR

Late Thursday night, under the threat of severe sanctions by Federal judges, Gov. Jerry Brown grudgingly filed a plan to reduce the state’s prison population to near-Constitutional levels. At a press conference the next morning, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard assured reporters that “ninety percent” of the plan is based on increasing capacity (i.e., increasing incarceration). However, the plan also includes the release of some low-risk inmates — a move Beard warned would jeopardize public safety.

“The only remaining low-risk people that are left in the system are people that you might consider serious and violent offenders,” Beard explained. “They are low risk to recidivate, maybe, but still, they are serious offenders.” (emphasis added)

Beard thus recognizes that many "serious and violent offenders" are unlikely to commit another crime when released — yet he insists they threaten public safety. He seemed unconcerned with the incompatibility of these ideas, and he is not alone. This flawed logic pervades criminal justice policy and leads to sentences that are far longer than is beneficial for public safety.

The idea that a person who has committed a violent crime is and will always be a violent person may be intuitive to some, but it is not supported by evidence. In fact, CDCR data show “serious/violent offenders return to prison at a lower rate than inmates not flagged for serious/violent offenses.” Among the people most likely to recidivate are those who have committed theft, drug possession, and the receipt of stolen property — crimes that arouse much less public fear than do rape, kidnapping, or attempted murder. Yet people convicted of the latter crimes are among those with the lowest recidivism rates. The recidivism rate for people who have committed murder is actually the lowest of all offenses.

As I described in an earlier post, Brown could safely reduce the prison population by releasing certain inmates who have exhibited good behavior and/or are now classified as low risk — even if they have committed serious or violent crimes. Yet the focus of Brown’s plan is not reducing unnecessary incarceration, but perpetuating it: The Governor intends to open a new prison complex, keep inmates in private out-of-state prisons, and relocate inmates to correctional fire camps, county jails, and possibly private in-state prisons.

The plan acknowledges that the CDCR could also increase good time credits for some inmates who committed nonviolent crimes, and facilitate parole for low-risk inmates who are geriatric or “physically or cognitively debilitated or incapacitated.” However, Brown strongly opposes these measures because, he maintains, they are “unsound,” “dangerous,” and “would threaten public safety.”

In reality, public safety is threatened not by the potential release of certain low risk-people and those who have behaved well, but by the state’s over-reliance on incarceration, which results in exacerbated mental health problems, parentless children, crippled communities, and slashed funding for public education, social services, victim support, and treatment for substance abuse — which, unlike the severity of the commitment offense, is actually linked to recidivism.

Keywords: AB 109, Lizzie Buchen, overcrowding, parole, prisons, privatization, risk

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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