This week in Realignment: September 20, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

With the signing of SB 105, Gov. Brown enshrined into law the grand compromise reached between himself and Sen. Steinberg to ask the courts for more time to reduce state prison populations by another 8,500. Should they get more time, Sen. Steinberg has a three year plan that focuses on rehabilitation, treatment and education. If the court denies the request, Gov. Brown’s original proposal kicks in, spending $730 million over the next two years on privately contracted beds for the bulk of that 8,500.

While rehabilitation for those suffering from substance abuse disorders and clinical treatment for those with mental illness clearly make sense as alternatives to incarceration, education for the general prison population is just as critical to combatting recidivism.

Lois M. Davis, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp., is a leading voice on education’s role in reducing recidivism. In a recent article she penned for the Los Angeles Times, she breaks down the issue quite succinctly:

If California is serious about reducing its prison population, one crucial component will have to be reducing recidivism. Currently, a lot of the state’s inmates are men and women who’ve been in prison more than once. They get out, they have little training or education, they can’t get jobs and, in many cases, they return to lives of crime and find themselves back behind bars.

But a major new study of correctional education in U.S. state prisons suggests there are things California could do to slow that revolving door. Our research demonstrates that ex-offenders’ futures may depend on what, if anything, they learn while behind bars.

Whenever something beneficial to a person deemed a “criminal” is proposed, there are always the voices that bemoan the use of tax dollars on someone who has broken the law. There are several flaws with this view of criminal justice.

The obvious is that tax dollars are being spent regardless. To the tune of $55,000 per bed per year in state prisons. This alone warrants the search for any method or alternative that will keep a body out of that bed.

It was Davis who, a little over two years ago, was issuing words of caution on the forthcoming realignment that was about to go into effect via AB 109. Her main worry was that county jails were just as ill-equipped to offer proper health care to inmates as the state prisons were. Two years later, the Affordable Care Act presents a very welcome remedy to that issue should counties handle enrollment properly, which is something the Partnership is hard at work on this very moment through our regional convenings.

But two years later, Davis has released a study via Rand Corp. that offers in-depth empirical links between education and reduced recidivism. So coming full circle to whether or not tax dollars are being wasted on educating inmates, consider this chain of events: an inmate receives vocational training while behind bars. He is released with a brand new skillset that allow him to legitimately land a job instead of returning to a life of crime to subsist. In doing so, not only does he take his hand out of taxpayers’ pockets as both a criminal and an inmate, but he also can either afford health care or receives it through his employer, removing future burdens on the system through ER visits that wind up on the county’s tab.

It’s a virtuous cycle that just makes sense. In fact, we’ve seen it ourselves first hand at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Facility in Sacramento County with a perennial inmate named Jeffrey Berryman [watch video]. A true product of the revolving door system, he was finally able to get training to be a certified welder and last we checked, he was gainfully employed doing just that.

The nation is embracing a paradigm shift in how we view criminal justice. Building more jails to house more inmates is a costly and short-sighted solution. Regardless of what the court dictates with respect to SB 105, California must continue to embrace this shift long-term as it is the only true means of attacking recidivism at the source.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson