Today We Honor Our Veterans, but What About Tomorrow?

November 11, 2014

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed over two million Americans to the rigors of military training as well as to warfare conditions. A new study of veterans in Los Angeles found that many returning veterans are not prepared to transition to civilian life and require culturally competent approaches to helping them reenter society. In particular:

  • The study surveyed nearly 1,200 pre- and post-9/11 veterans from all military sectors residing in Los Angeles County. Of the post-9/11 veterans, 41 percent were age 30 or younger, 34 percent had at least a four-year college degree, the vast majority received an honorable discharge from service, and almost three-quarters were people of color.
  • More than one in five post-9/11 veterans had an annual income below or nearly below the federal poverty line.
  • Forty percent of post-9/11 veterans reported being homeless in the past year. This includes veterans who slept in a transitional residence — like a shelter, friend or family member’s home, motel, jail, or hospital — as well as in a public place.
  • Twenty-four percent of post-9/11 veterans reported suffering from severe physical health symptoms, and just under a quarter had been screened positive for a mild traumatic brain injury.
  • Forty-six percent of post-9/11 veterans screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder, 46 percent screened positive for depression, and 15 percent had considered attempting suicide.

Unfortunately, the study also highlighted the failure of service organizations to meet veterans’ needs:

…veteran support agencies are typically organized to support only one or two of these issues. For instance, it is typical to see ‘campaigns’ targeting veteran employment or housing, while ignoring health and education (including skills training and deployment), assuming, often incorrectly, that other agencies are meeting the veterans’ needs in these areas. […] Service providers must recognize that a holistic approach to veteran support is needed, and that they most likely only represent one or two parts of that approach, and maybe not even the most important part, depending on the needs of the veteran.

Unaddressed homelessness, physical and mental health issues, and chronic unemployment put veterans at risk of contact with the criminal justice system. Although reliable data are scarce, a 2013 study found that in 18 randomly selected states, between 2 and 20 percent of the prison population reported having veteran status. The study reviewed more recent localized data and concluded that the proportion of incarcerated individuals who are veterans is rising. The analysis also raised the concern that veteran courts — specialized alternative court systems for veterans — may not be responsive to the complexity of the problem. The study stressed the importance of understanding the often lasting effects of military service that shape veterans’ behavior and yet are often overlooked by the courts and treatment teams.

These studies emphasize the importance of recognizing the unique needs of our veterans and the absence of comprehensive public services and supports to address them. Service agencies must make a commitment to working collaboratively to support individuals returning from the military.

— Selena Teji


Proposition 47 Would Continue Trend Toward Local Public Safety Solutions

September 10, 2014

Yesterday the CBP released an analysis of Proposition 47, “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” which will appear on the November 4 statewide ballot. The measure would reclassify seven categories of nonviolent drug and property crimes as misdemeanors, thereby reducing penalties for various low-level offenses (except for individuals with specific serious, violent, or sex offense histories). In addition, Proposition 47 would allow for resentencing of individuals who were previously convicted of the reclassified crimes.

In essence, the measure proposes a series of amendments to current sentencing law in California that would simplify, lower, and equalize the penalties for common nonviolent crimes, such as shoplifting and drug possession for personal use. By doing so, Proposition 47 would continue California’s recent trend of moving away from state corrections for nonviolent crimes and investing in local public safety solutions.

This type of sentencing modification was embodied more broadly in 2011 when the Legislature transferred — or realigned — responsibility for supervising individuals convicted of low-level felonies from the state to counties based on a framework proposed by Governor Brown. Despite the large-scale shift that realignment created, there may still be a need for a deeper revision of California’s sentencing laws.

California’s sentencing structure is a complex system of laws that offer little transparency into the purpose or effectiveness of the system as a whole. Competing goals of punishment and rehabilitation have swung largely in favor of incarceration since the 1970s. However, as our analysis of Proposition 47 shows, overreliance on incarceration can be harmful to communities and costly to the state. Additionally, sentencing outcomes are heavily influenced by the discretion of local criminal justice administrators — for example, police, prosecutors, and judges — which can result in a system of justice by geography. On the one hand, this can mean that where people live arbitrarily affects the likelihood they will be sentenced to a period of incarceration. On the other hand, flexibility in the system allows local jurisdictions to respond more effectively to the particular needs of their communities.

The Legislature, Administration, and judicial branch have all acknowledged a need for a more comprehensive revision of sentencing laws, but have been slow to take action, often due to disagreements over who should have what decision-making power and responsibility.

Proposition 47 presents an opportunity for voters to weigh in on one aspect of California’s sentencing structure: how to respond to certain nonviolent crimes. The measure would lead to a decline in incarceration and would invest the resulting state savings into drug and mental health treatment, school truancy and dropout prevention, and victim services. These three areas have been shown to improve public safety and could result in further criminal justice savings.

Insofar as the measure reduces criminal justice spending in the long term — both through decreased use of state prisons for nonviolent crime and through investment in local public safety solutions — California could use freed up resources to invest in critical public systems and services that are operating at severely diminished funding levels such as child care, education, and services for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

— Selena Teji


Bending the Prison Cost Curve

March 26, 2014

Budgets, as we like to say at the CBP, are not just about dollars and cents. At a fundamental level, budgets express our values and priorities as a state. The choices we make through the state budget process help determine whether California is improving outcomes for families and communities and investing in policies that promote broadly shared prosperity. While California has made some major progress in this regard — the state’s robust implementation of federal health care reform is a prime example — in other ways we’ve fallen short.

One way in which we’ve clearly missed the mark is illustrated by the chart below. Under the Governor’s proposed spending plan for 2014-15, California is expected to spend more than $62,000 on each prison inmate — nearly 90 percent higher than in 1994-95, after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, our state is expected to spend slightly less than $9,200 for each K-12 student in 2014-15 — a level that reflects a marked improvement relative to recent years, but which is up by only 30 percent since 1994-95, after adjusting for inflation. In other words, over the past two decades spending per prisoner in California has increased nearly three times faster than spending per K-12 student.

California can do better. “Bending the prison cost curve” — that is, curtailing the persistent trend of rising state prison spending — is a challenging but necessary undertaking that deserves policymakers’ sustained attention. Making progress toward this goal would free up state dollars that could be redirected from the correctional system to essential state priorities in the years ahead.

— Scott Graves


State Leaders Agree to Boost Prison Capacity — but Hope It Won’t Be Needed

September 11, 2013

California is fast approaching a December 31 deadline set by a three-judge federal court to reduce the state prison population to 137.5 percent of the system’s capacity, a level equal to about 112,000 inmates. Currently, state prisons house nearly 120,000 inmates — 147 percent of capacity and roughly 8,000 inmates above the court-imposed limit. While California has made great strides in reducing the number of prisoners — state prisons held well over 160,000 inmates just six years ago — additional measures will be needed to bring the state into compliance with the judges’ order, which dates to August 2009. (A CBP status report on the court order and subsequent developments can be found here.)

Governor Brown and legislative leaders spent the last couple of weeks debating what steps California should take to further reduce the prison population in accordance with the court order. Under a compromise announced this past Monday, the state will shift thousands of prisoners to private lockups in and outside of California this year — at a cost of $315 million — unless the court grants the state’s request for more time to meet the prison population cap. If California were to receive such a reprieve, the state would either drop or scale back the plan to contract for beds in private facilities, depending on how much relief the court decided to grant. This, in turn, would free up some or all of the state funds that would have gone toward boosting prison capacity. The first $75 million of freed-up funds would be placed in a new “Recidivism Reduction Fund” to be used for unspecified “activities designed to reduce the state’s prison population.” Half of any additional savings would go to the new recidivism fund, and the other half would go back to the state General Fund. In addition, the compromise increases funding for an existing state program that financially rewards counties for reducing the number of offenders who are sent to prison after failing on probation, either by committing a new crime or violating the terms of their local supervision. Finally, the compromise requires the Administration to issue a report, by April 1, 2014, that examines prison capacity, recidivism rates, and other issues, and recommends “balanced solutions that are cost effective and protect public safety.”

One of the primary goals of the compromise is to avoid the early release of prison inmates. The Governor and legislative leaders unanimously oppose releasing prisoners early, even though the court — based on expert testimony — concluded that reducing inmates’ sentences would not jeopardize public safety. Early release is a possibility because the court’s most recent order, issued on June 20, outlined a specific set of actions — including early release — that California must take to come down to the population cap by the December 31 deadline. For example, the June 20 order requires California to expand “good-time” credits that inmates may earn — a change that would allow thousands of inmates to leave prison earlier than expected. The order also includes a contingency measure requiring the early release of “low-risk” prisoners if the December 31 population target would not otherwise be met. Low-risk inmates are defined as those “who are unlikely to reoffend or who might otherwise be candidates for early release.” Presumably, the state would avoid the need to release any inmates early if it instead shifted prisoners to private lockups, the centerpiece of the compromise plan.

The linchpin of this compromise — for those who are wary of using limited state dollars to increase prison capacity — is the prospect that the court will extend the deadline for meeting the population cap. In theory, this would give the state additional time to implement as-yet-unspecified long-term solutions to prison overcrowding. However, it’s highly uncertain that the court would agree to such an extension. In their June 20 order, the judges not only voiced frustration that state officials had “consistently sought to delay the implementation” of the court’s population cap, but also argued the state had “no excuse for failing to meet the 137.5% requirement on December 31, 2013 … no matter what unexpected misfortunes arise.” If the court rejects the state’s request for more time, California would end up spending hundreds of millions of dollars to boost prison capacity, a solution that Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg previously called “neither sustainable nor fiscally responsible.” Such an outcome would run counter to Californians’ view that the corrections budget is already too large and needs to be downsized. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of Californians surveyed in 2011 supported cuts to “prisons and corrections” to help balance the state budget, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

While California’s path forward on prison overcrowding remains uncertain, it is heartening that state policymakers recognize the need to put in place durable solutions to the crisis. We hope that the debate leading up to the compromise signals the beginning of a robust conversation among Californians and their elected officials about the future of corrections policy in the Golden State.

— Scott Graves


Fewer State Prisoners, Higher Cost Per Inmate

August 7, 2013

California’s prisons, once bulging at the seams, have slimmed down considerably since counties took responsibility for housing and supervising certain low-level offenders as part of a state-to-county “realignment” that began in October 2011. The state’s 33 prisons currently house about 119,600 inmates — 17.2 percent below the September 30, 2011 (pre-realignment) level of 144,456. In fact, the prison population is now roughly the same size as in 1994-95, when it ranged from about 115,000 to just over 121,000.

Yet, even as the number of prisoners has dropped since realignment, the cost per inmate – adjusted for inflation – has continued to climb and is substantially higher than in the mid-1990s, as we show in our recent report on state corrections spending. California is expected to spend about $60,000 for each inmate in 2013-14 — 82.3 percent higher than in 1994-95, when the state spent slightly less than $33,000 per inmate, after adjusting for inflation. In stark contrast, California’s spending per K-12 student has risen by just 17.9 percent during the same period — from an inflation-adjusted $6,971 in 1994-95 to a projected $8,219 in 2013-14. In other words, spending per prisoner in California has increased nearly five times faster than spending per K-12 student over the past two decades.

Our report identifies a number of factors that have contributed to this substantial increase in spending per inmate. Staffing levels – including correctional officers and other prison-related employees — are significantly higher today than in the mid-1990s, even though the number of inmates is about the same. Salary increases have also contributed to the rising cost per inmate, as has the dramatic growth in health care spending — an increase driven by various court orders and settlements. California is expected to spend $2 billion on medical, dental, and psychiatric services for inmates in 2013-14, more than triple the $590 million the state spent on those same services in 1994-95, after adjusting for inflation. In addition, the difficulty of reducing fixed costs — such as utilities, leases, and support staff — over a relatively short period likely has contributed to rising spending per inmate since realignment took effect, as our report explains.

This rising cost per inmate is troubling and deserves greater scrutiny by state policymakers, since every dollar directed to the prison system leaves one less dollar to spend on other public systems and services. Certainly, increases in corrections spending may be warranted in some cases, such as to expand and improve rehabilitation services. In other cases, higher spending may be unavoidable, particularly for inmate health care, which remains under the direct management of a court-appointed federal Receiver. On balance, however, policymakers do have choices about how much funding is allocated to the state corrections budget and how those dollars are spent. Reducing — or at least holding the line on — corrections spending over time would free up scarce state dollars that could be redirected to education, health care, transportation, and other essential state priorities in the years ahead.

— Scott Graves