Marc Klaas and Abel Maldonado: Spend More on Prisons, Don’t Release Felons

By Marc Klaas and Abel Maldonado
Special to the Mercury News
Updated: 07/10/2013 06:25:56 PM PDT

With one signature, Gov. Jerry Brown turned California’s entire criminal justice system on its head. To solve the problem of prison overcrowding, Brown undid decades of public safety progress championed by the majority of Californians and managed to make the overcrowded conditions of California’s jails worse. Rather than choosing to preserve the safety of our communities, he threw caution to the wind and enacted a complete system overhaul.

The governor admitted that his plan was to shift the responsibility of managing thousands of inmates to the county level. Because his bill, AB 109, was rammed through the budget process without so much as a relevant policy hearing, there was no discussion about the enormous burden this shift would place on jails and the impact it would have on public safety.

A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California highlighted that statewide, county jails have been operating above 100 percent of rated capacity since February 2012. As of this past February, there were 1,155 inmates serving sentences of more than five years in a county jail, with one inmate in Santa Barbara County serving a sentence of 23 years. These facilities were designed to detain low-level offenders. Now they are predominately housing career felons, turning local jails into mini-prisons.

With jails busting at the seams, many have to resort to the early release of inmates to accommodate these new offenders. The PPIC found that by June 2012, 35 counties reported releasing thousands of offenders early because of capacity constraints. More than 6,000 inmates were released early in June 2012 alone, a 69 percent increase from June 2011. This means thousands of dangerous felons are back on our streets.

With so few re-entry programs designed for high-risk jail inmates, the best law enforcement officials can do is release these criminals and cross their fingers that they do not re-offend. But with California’s recidivism rate continuing to push 65 percent, it means they already are.

Early release and relaxed sentencing is not a solution to California’s prison overcrowding and high recidivism rate. We must combine our investment in education and workforce development with a prison system that makes it clear that disregard for the law or human life will be met by strict punishment. Law enforcement must be able to exert its full influence to control crime, and offenders need to know that they will be held accountable.

Investing more adequately in our prison system to meet population growth, as other states have, is a necessary component of any solution that seeks to address the current overcrowding problem. This additional funding should be used to retrofit and build facilities and also implement rehabilitation programs at the state level. With these improvements, the state prisons can fulfill their intended goal of incarcerating and rehabilitating felons while county jails can focus on the safety of their communities.

The consequences of AB 109 are astronomical, affecting innocent Californians who are becoming victims of heinous crimes. The No. 1 priority of the governor must be your safety. We have fought too hard for too long to make sure the voices of victims and victims’ rights advocates are heard in Sacramento. This bill winds back the clock of progress.

New public safety policies must further the lessons that the devastating crimes of the last decades have taught us.

Marc Klaas is founder of the Klaas Kids Foundation and father of the late Polly Klaas. Abel Maldonado is the former lieutenant governor of California. They wrote this for this newspaper.