California Prison Expansion Senseless

On July 3, 2000, the California Department of Corrections (CDC) reported a decline in the number of people incarcerated in California. According to the CDC, the Golden State's prison population is currently 5,000 below capacity and the CDC projects that the prison population will continue to decline.

Nonetheless, the CDC and its head cheerleaders -- Governor Davis and the State Guard's Union -- are moving full steam ahead with their plan to build a new $335-million, 5000 bed maximum-security prison in Delano, California. Half of beds are planned to house juveniles convicted under Proposition 21, the Juvenile Crime Initiative. California, however, doesn't need another prison.

Just six months ago, the Department of Corrections scratched plans to build four new 500-bed prisons. Why? Because in 1999, crime rates dropped for the eighth straight year and the Golden State's prison population was almost 10,000 fewer than Corrections had projected. "It's strictly a population issue, and based on the figures we have right now we would not be in a position to need the beds," Corrections Director Cal Terhune explained.

If the state didn't need 2,000 beds six months ago, why does it need 5,000 beds at Delano? State officials no doubt will argue that what it needs are maximum-security beds. The numbers say otherwise. Moreover, California wouldn't need more maximum-security beds if only the parole board followed the law and actually paroled someone.

Threatening to hold California's Parole Board in contempt, a state appeals court recently took the unprecedented step of essentially ordering the board to follow the law and parole Robert Rosenkrantz. The backdrop to the court's extraordinary decision is what could be coined California's "no parole, no exceptions " policy, which has repercussions far beyond Rosenkrantz.

Made up of retired police chiefs, lawmakers and victims' rights advocates, the parole board denies parole in more than 99% of the approximately 2,000 cases it reviews each year. Davis has made matters even worse. He has vetoed every parole recommendation for an inmate serving an indeterminate sentence -- one carrying no prescribed release date. In 1999, Davis vetoed 19 such recommendations. In sharp contrast, in his first year in office, law-and-order hawk Pete Wilson approved 54 recommendations.

The courts are not the only ones taking issue with the board and Davis. The governor's 2000 budget sets aside a whopping $19 million for the parole board, an increase of $1.4 million. The justification for the increased funding: the "no parole" policy. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that more than 4,000 inmates, incarcerated at an annual cost of at least $100 million, are now eligible for parole and a total of 20,000 inmates are potentially subject to the "no parole" policy. According to the legislative analyst, the "no parole" policy has added to the pressure on the state to build additional maximum-security bed space, such as the prison in Delano.

Parole is not the only obvious answer. This November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote on the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000. The initiative, which provides for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders charged with drug possession, would drastically decrease the need for new prisons. The legislative analyst reports that if the initiative passes, as many as 25,000 nonviolent drug possession offenders per year would be diverted to drug treatment instead of being sent to prison. That, according to the analyst, would mean at least 10,000 fewer prison beds would be needed, and the state could save between $475 million and $575 million just in prison construction costs.

California has spent $4.2 billion on new prisons in the past 15 years. Since 1980, the state has built 23 new prisons, but only one new university. As a result, California ranks No. 1 in the nation in prison spending but 41st in education spending. Lockups have displaced dams, roads and schools as the state's new public works program. And history teaches us, if you build them, you fill them.

Rose Braz is an Attorney and Program Director for Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, a national organization challenging prison expansion that recently filed a lawsuit aimed at halting construction of the Delano prison.

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