Q&A: How to Fix California's Prisons

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A consultant to the California Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, Joan Petersilia is also a professor of criminology at University of California Irvine and director of its Center on Evidence-Based Corrections, which is funded by the prisons department. An expert on prison reform, she offers her thoughts on how to solve the myriad problems in the nation's largest corrections system as it faces the threat of federal supervision.

TIME: People are worried that if the federal courts impose population caps there will be a wholesale release of violent offenders, endangering public safety. Are those concerns well-founded?
Petersilia: If it happens, there will never be a wholesale release of violent felons to meet the caps. California will do individual risk assessments of the prison population and make decisions based on age, the inmates' prison and criminal record, and seriousness of their current crime.

Are you optimistic that the California system can be reformed by political leaders, or will the federal authorities have step in?
I don't have a crystal ball on whether the courts will intervene. Everyone in California, including the courts, is frustrated because they want to see things happen faster than they have been. But this is not a sprint; it is a marathon. The department of corrections has been promising reform for years and hasn't been able to deliver. So, there is a real possibility that there will be a court-ordered cap on the prison population in the state. This is a pinnacle moment in California. I think we've philosophically shifted priorities from punishment to rehabilitation, the new director embraces the change, and key elected leaders are talking reform. The challenge is whether they can make this happen in the nation's largest system.

What are the key problems with California's prison system?
The textbooks say corrections departments are the most difficult organizations to run because they have few treatment resources, a difficult clientele, little public support and must deal with mixed messages from those wanting both rehabilitation and punishment. In California, the problem is exacerbated because the system is so huge. There have been numerous management changes and varied missions, we have severe gang problems within the prison population and our parole and sentencing systems are extremely complex.

Will the new $7.4 billion spending package that was just approved make a dent in the problem or does it, as critics claim, throw more good money after bad?
The legislature used to pass bill after bill giving the department of corrections more and more money and it never tied the increased funding to performance measures showing whether they were involving inmates in programs or preparing them for release. Under this law, the prisons department is only allowed to build all of the new proposed beds in phases over the next decade. Officials can't get more money from the legislature for future prison building projects until they reach identified benchmarks showing they have accomplished implementing some rehabilitation, education and parole reform programs. The state's inspector general will chair an independent body that will develop the standards and audit compliance. That aspect gets overshadowed by the tremendous amount of money going to new prison beds, but it's important.

Are there successful models in other states that California should emulate?
For a comprehensive approach, I turn to Illinois because it matches our determinant sentencing structure [in which nearly every inmate automatically gets released at the end of his or her term regardless of their level of rehabilitation or chances of staying out of trouble]. It also has a similar parole system to ours where, instead of a discretionary parole board with authority to keep back the most violent convicts, everyone who is released is automatically put on parole supervision. Illinois made a major commitment to reform in 2002 and has stayed the course. [Early results indicate that Illinois officials are succeeding in lowering re-incarceration rates, raising participation in drug treatment programs and increasing parolee employment.] I look at the progress there and see how far behind we are and where we could go.

What other solutions do you favor?
We need three things: sentencing reform, better prison rehabilitation programming, and parole reform. Part of our problem is structural. Under our current sentencing law, we can send people back to prison for technical parole infractions. [Some other states only order jail time or community punishments for technical parole violations.] So, parole violators just keep churning in and out of our prison system, serving very short terms. We should change that practice and handle very low-risk, non-serious, non-violent parole violators in the community. California could reduce its prison population by adopting this practice. It's low-hanging fruit in terms of addressing overcrowding. Additionally, we need more crime-prevention programs and better funding for probation to reduce the number of people coming into prison in the first place.