As Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) put it, the odyssey of California’s corrections system during the past decade would be a wonderful topic for a Ph.D. thesis: it would cover the separation of powers, the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the evolution of one of the nation’s largest prison systems. Steinberg’s comments were made Monday during a PPIC Speaker Series on California’s Future event at the Sheraton Grand in Sacramento, which drew an audience of several hundred in person and online.
Steinberg was joined by Assemblymember Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), the vice chairwoman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, and Matthew Cate, the director of the California State Association of Counties. The discussion was moderated by PPIC President Mark Baldassare.
This event occurred at a time when California is working to comply with a court order to reduce the prison population by February 2016. The state has recently directed more than $1 billion toward new jail beds at the local level. But state policymakers are also focusing on alternatives to incarceration that will reduce recidivism, deter criminal behavior, and save money.
“I maintain very strongly that unless we begin significantly redirecting resources from leasing prison and jail space to substance abuse and mental health care and treatment that we may reach that magic number at one point in time, but we will not maintain it,” Steinberg said.
The bipartisan panel found considerable agreement on the need to increase rehabilitation efforts, particularly those aimed at youthful offenders or at-risk youth. Steinberg said he would like to see the $81 million in Governor Brown’s proposed budget doubled, and Melendez agreed that the amount in the proposed budget was insufficient. The state is also considering another $500 million for new jail beds in this year’s budget, and Steinberg suggested that counties should have discretion about whether those funds might be better spent on mental health beds or other intervention services.
The panel also gave a strong endorsement of better data collection on realignment-related programs—currently, not enough is known about how intervention programs are performing or which ones work best.
“We have a lot of programs out there, and no one seems to be able to tell me if they work,” Melendez said.
The panel also addressed identifying metrics for success—defining key measures, such as recidivism, can be a challenge. Cate said there are multiple measures of recidivism —arrest, conviction, prison—but each one can tell a different story.