Police divided over prison plan

California prisoners in a crowded gymnasium.
California prisoners in a crowded gymnasium. State of California

Last week, Governor Schwarzenegger put on hold his plan to reduce the state’s prison population. Republican leaders had threatened to torpedo the budget deal if he didn’t. Lawmakers have agreed to consider the plan again in a few weeks. It’s expected to face stiff opposition, as KPCC’s Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: In Los Angeles, Assistant Police Chief Jim McDonnell denounced the governor’s proposal to reduce California’s prison population so the state can save more than a billion dollars a year.

LAPD Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell: When you look at where the individuals who are in state prisons come from, a high percentage comes from L.A. County. And they’ll be coming right back here to this city and this region. It’s a shame that while we may save money in the short term, putting criminals back into our communities will cost us more in the long term – not only in money but in pain and suffering.

Stoltze: Paul Weber is president of the union that represents LAPD officers.

Paul Weber: Early release is just a shortcut to disaster.

Stoltze: “Early release” – it’s a phrase that irks Seth Unger, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Seth Unger: We’re not doing early release. Early release is what most people would characterize as opening the prison doors and sending out inmates that have not served their sentence."

Stoltze: Unger says the governor proposes a variety of methods to reduce the prison population by 27,000 inmates from a near historic high of 168,000. Simply freeing inmates isn’t one of them.

Under the plan, up to 8,500 low-risk inmates who are undocumented immigrants would be handed over to the federal government for deportation. An estimated 6,300 other low-risk or elderly inmates would be released with GPS monitoring. Unger says about 1,600 low risk inmates would be released only if they completed drug rehabilitation or vocational training programs.

Unger: What we’ve tried to do is: we’ve tried to minimize the potential that there’s going to be a serious or a violent offender that’s going to be released from prison. And we’ve tried to look at very rational and reasonable ways that we can reduce our inmate population, by doing things that have been very successful in other states, and have not led to increases in crime.

Stoltze: The governor also wants to align California’s parole policies with other states. He proposes to relax supervision for lower risk parolees, and to stop sending parolees back to prison for minor violations. Carole D’elia of the state’s Little Hoover Commission says her agency’s long lobbied for such reforms.

Carole D’Elia: Allowing the state parole officers to put the greatest focus on those offenders that pose the highest risk and then providing other alternatives when a lower level offender violates some provision of parole, whether it’s house supervision or drug treatment, but sanctions other than the most costly which is a return to prison."

Stoltze: D’Elia also backs the governor’s plan to send people convicted of crimes like receiving stolen property and writing bad checks to local jails for a few months instead of prison for years.

Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian says relaxing supervision of low risk parolees is tricky business. He points to last weekend’s kidnap and murder of 17-year-old Lily Burk by a parolee who’d apparently never been convicted of a violent crime.

Bernard Melekian: The tragic death of the young woman in Los Angeles clearly points out the need for a threat evaluation matrix that’s very meaningful.

Stoltze: Melekian heads the California Police Chiefs Association. In a move that surprised some, the group decided to support the governor’s plan.

Melekian: The proposals that came out last week provide for some very meaningful supervision and oversight.

Stoltze: The proposals, says Melekian, are not just a good way to reduce a bloated prison budget. He says they might keep federal judges concerned about prison overcrowding in California, from ordering even more releases.

Strong opposition’s likely from Republicans and the powerful prison guards union – which faces layoffs if prisons hold fewer inmates. Even Democrats like L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa – sensitive to how voters see his record on crime – have criticized the plan.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: One version would put criminals of all stripes back on the streets and would add to the burden of our brave men and women in uniform. The prison release program is premature and half-baked.

Stoltze: But the plan’s been cooking for a few weeks now. The legislature will decide soon if it’s done.

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