Nearly three decades after California cracked down on rising crime rates with tougher sentencing laws, the bill is coming due for what experts say has been one of the most ill-planned and flawed prison expansions in the country.
At the heart of the problem is a simple but overpowering mismatch -- lawmakers and prosecutors sent far more criminals to prison than Californians, ultimately, were willing to pay for. The result has been such acute overcrowding that critical prison programs and services are breaking down and require enormously expensive fixes.
On Thursday, a federal judge expressed shock at what he called the neglect and "depravity" in parts of the prison health care system, and ordered that a receiver take control. Court-ordered improvements could send costs soaring in a program that already spends $1.1 billion a year.
Just weeks before, the Corrections Department opened Kern Valley State Prison, built at a cost of $716 million and hailed as the last of 22 new prisons in a $4.5 billion construction program. But days later, the head of the agency, Roderick Q. Hickman, told The Chronicle that Kern Valley could not possibly be the last prison, because the system holds twice the number of inmates it was designed for and is still adding more.
Hickman said taxpayers will also have to pay many millions of dollars to upgrade older prisons and to comply with court orders demanding the correction of conditions so abysmal that they violate inmates' constitutional rights. With some of the highest costs per inmate, the most violence, the highest rate of parolees going back to prison and the worst crowding, California's corrections system is unlike any other system in the United States.
"There's California and then there's the rest of the country," said Michael Jacobson, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York and the former head of New York City's jail system. The costs of the failures are now becoming clear:
California's problems are particularly striking because they run counter to a broad national trend that is saving other states millions of dollars while making citizens safer. If it could fix its dysfunctional programs, experts say, a department that is projected to spend $7.3 billion this fiscal year could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Even strict law-and-order states such as Mississippi and Louisiana have embraced new models that involve elements like shorter sentences, improved rehabilitation programs and more alternatives to prison. Texas, which has a higher crime rate than California and houses nearly as many inmates, puts only a fraction as many parole violators back in prison.
"California has used policies that show no evidence of effectiveness; all they show is high cost," said Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "The state is the poster child for corrections policies that have no benefit to public safety."
Hickman, in an interview, said of the parole system: "California, quite frankly, is aberrant compared with anywhere else in the country."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Hickman on his first day in office to be secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, which operates the adult prisons and the much smaller juvenile system. Hickman leaped into motion, declaring that he was determined to overhaul the parole system because its problems were so central to prisons being overstuffed with some 164,000 inmates.
This Friday, 20 months later, he reached a landmark when his agency took the name Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as part of the reorganization.
But some critics express deep disappointment that so little has been accomplished. While they call for urgency, Hickman said that it could take an additional 18 to 24 months to institute major new policies in the areas suffering the gravest problems.
"My emphasis with adult corrections right now is evaluating the prisons, evaluating the safety of the prisons, and then reconfiguring the prisons within the mission we now have," he said.
The foundation of the current problems was laid in the late 1970s, when Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and Republican officials toughened the state's criminal-justice policy.
As rising crime rates fed a law-and-order mood, Brown signed legislation requiring judges to impose fixed sentences. Other laws provided longer sentences for drug crimes, sex crimes and for habitual offenders, reaching a peak with "three strikes" in 1994, which mandated life sentences for some repeat offenders.
There were warnings that the state was unprepared. In 1979 the head of the Corrections Department, Jiro Enomoto, warned that the prison population could shoot out of control, to 27,000 by 1986 from about 20,000. By 1986 there were 54,000, and the state never caught up.
Today the prisons hold nearly twice the number of inmates they were designed for, many having converted gyms and other areas into large dormitories. The crowding has raised racial and other tensions, made prisons more difficult to control, and hindered the limited treatment and education programs that are provided.
"People are consistently coming out worse than they're going in," said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland. He served on a blue-ribbon commission 15 years ago that examined the prisons and recommended major reforms, most of which were ignored.
"It's getting worse," said Krisberg, "and it is harming public safety because these people are going back in their communities."
Overcrowding is at the root of many of the system's failures, and parole is at the root of the overcrowding. Experts blame the state's policy of keeping most released inmates on parole for far longer periods than other states and sending most of those who violate parole back to prison, even for relatively minor offenses such as missing meetings or failing drug tests.
So many parole violators are returned to prison that they make up more than one third of all inmates. The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state research body that provides policy recommendations, estimated 18 months ago that the prisons spend about $1.5 billion a year on parole violators and parolees who commit new crimes.
When inmates do make it back home, they are ill-prepared, either by their stay in prison or parole programs, to hold down jobs or stay out of trouble. The Little Hoover Commission found that 10 percent are homeless, half are illiterate, as many as 80 percent are unemployed. Eighty percent are drug users.
Experts say that spending money on treating or training parole violators is more effective than sending them back to prison for typical stays of 90 to 120 days.
Among parolees who met drug treatment goals at intensive residential centers, only 15.5 percent returned to prison within a year of being released, compared with more than 40 percent for all offenders, said Sheldon Zhang, a professor of sociology at Cal State San Marcos.
But the Schwarzenegger administration has cut funding for some programs and poorly planned others. One drug treatment program in a prison, for example, performed poorly because it did not isolate the inmates who were in treatment from the general prison population, where they had access to drugs.
Two years ago, the state said new parole programs emphasizing treatment and alternatives to prison for violators would cut the prison population by 15, 000 inmates. But they were poorly designed, in some cases sending drug violators to halfway houses with no drug programs, and never even implemented properly. In April the state stopped sending parole violators to these programs.
Parole violation cases have risen sharply this year, one of the reasons the Corrections Department had to ask for an additional $207 million for a larger inmate base.
California already spends $1.1 billion a year on health care for inmates -- a doubling in costs in just seven years -- but the level of care is so poor that U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson has said it violates inmates' constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. Henderson, based in San Francisco, ruled Thursday that a receiver would be appointed to order improvements.
No budget figures were discussed, but most expect costs to soar, perhaps for years, because of the system's desperate needs. In a separate area, mental health, a department consultant has estimated it could cost $1.4 billion to meet the needs of the growing number of mentally ill inmates.
Last year the department asked if the University of California, with its big, highly regarded medical system, could take over management of the prison health care programs. The university said no almost immediately.
"We just were not able to take on something of that scale," said Jeff Hall, director of policy for the university's Division of Health Affairs.
High vacancy rates for doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and pharmacists who must work under difficult conditions will require heavy spending for recruitment, as well as bonuses and other incentives to attract qualified people to some remote prison locations.
The department has also agreed to hire a new level of supervisors and regional managers to oversee care, putting even more pressure on the budget.
Many doctors are furious, saying they are being unfairly blamed for the problems when they have to work in deplorable conditions and are badly overworked.
"The prisons were designed to incarcerate inmates," said Dr. Charles Hooper, who works at the California State Prison, Sacramento. "They were not designed to be the Mayo Clinic. They are essentially dungeons."
Hooper said that as many as half the inmates he sees for treatment show up without charts. The frequent lockdowns at the prison, often a result of tensions due to crowding, also disrupt proper treatment.
"It can be a fiasco at times," he said.
Health costs could also soar because of the rapidly rising number of geriatric inmates. According to an internal Corrections Department report, the total cost of an elderly inmate is three times that of a younger one. New facilities for them could also require major renovations.
The number of inmates 60 and over, among the most expensive to care for, nearly doubled in only six years, to 3,358 in 2004 from 1,781 in 1998, according to the department.
Health costs are also affected by the high level of violence in the prisons. California's prisons have roughly twice the number of violent incidents reported in Texas prisons and almost three times the number in federal prisons, both of which have similar numbers of inmates, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Some people complain that the system seems immune to even the smallest changes.
David Warren, a volunteer chaplain and member of the Family Council, which works with prison officials on behalf of inmate families, tells of a prison dentist who was concerned that the toothbrushes he was supplied were so hard that they were actually causing dental problems. He sought to have the state order softer brushes. He succeeded -- after 18 months.
"There is a mind-set that you have to see to understand," Warren said.
On a much broader level, the department's technology experts say it will be years before the prisons have computer networks that will enable them to keep track of the movements and needs of the inmates and a staff of about 54, 000.
Only recently have prison officials been able to communicate through the same e-mail system. Jeff Baldo, the head of the department's information technology division, said state-of-the-art optic fibers were installed in some prisons a decade ago, then left unused.
He said the department has one information technology specialist for every 1,000 employees; typically, a state agency of its size would need one technology expert for every 6 to 10 employees.
"I've never been in a place where you see this," Baldo said.
As a result, transferring large volumes of data from one prison to another is nearly impossible, the department's experts said. Most medical records are on paper, and when inmates are moved, their records sometimes fail to catch up. Thus prison officials often have to make decisions without complete data on inmates' records, medical conditions and special needs.
The officials said that building an adequate computer system could cost well over $100 million and take at least five more years.
"It could be less, but it also could be triple that amount," said Robert Horel, the corrections agency's chief of fiscal programs. "It doesn't take a very long term for the problems to grow when you're in the dark as much as we are."
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The state's prisons held fewer than 21,000 inmates as late as 1978, when the governor and Legislature began a 16-year push for tougher sentencing laws.
By the time the first of 22 new prisons opened in 1984, the population had already increased to 43,328.
California returns a higher percentage of parolees to prison than any other state, often for violating a condition of parole such as staying within a specified area.
Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
California Prisons Opened Since 1984
Designed - Current Capacity - Population
Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
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