I think it was Mark Twain who remarked about there being three sort of prevarication, Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics. Dr. Krupp has once again taken pen in hand, metaphorically speaking, to take issue with an editorial in the Sacramento PRAVDA a week ago. I will be more than happy to let his words speak for themselves. Its worth the read.
The California Prison System: “Bloated” and plagued by high recidivism rates and “filled with parolees?”
Richard Krupp, Ph.D.
The special Sacramento Bee editorial by a former California prison system official published on October 4, 2010, “California’s bloated prison system threatens public safety”, provides a fish-eye lens view of reality. When incorrect information is repeated without independent analysis it can take on a life of its own. Since the taxpayers have to live with the safety and fiscal consequences, it is imperative that misinformation be exposed.
The Bee editorial describes:
- Recidivism rates that exceed 70 percent.
- Large number of parole violators in state prison.
- Prison for “low-level” drug and property offenders.
According to a 2005 review of recidivism rates by the California State Auditor, “We selected six states cited in the Little Hoover Commission’s 2003 report on California’s parole policies—Back to the Community: Safe & Sound Parole Policies—as having developed alternatives to prison (Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, and Vermont) and two additional states with large populations (New York and Texas). The report found no uniform definition of the factors that should be included when calculating recidivism rates. In addition, “the factors used to calculate recidivism rates can vary from state to state, making meaningful comparisons among states difficult.”
A paper from the University of California, Irvine, Center for Evidence-Based Corrections, Are California’s Recidivism Rates Really the Highest in the nation? It Depends on What Measure of Recidivism You Use concluded that, “While California does indeed have high rates of offenders being arrested and reconvicted once released from prison, these rates are not the highest in the nation, nor are they markedly different from those found in many other states with the nation’s largest offender population.
The actual CDCR recidivism rate for all paroled felons released for the first time is displayed in the following table:
One, Two, Three Year Follow-up Recidivism Rates
For All Paroled Felons Released from Prison for the First Time
Under the Supervision of the CDCR
Year released 1 year rate 2 year rate 3 year rate 2000 42.65% 55.65% 60.48% 2001 41.38% 54.53% 59.19% 2002 40.38% 52.83% 57.24% 2003 38.13% 51.07% 56.04% 2004 38.33% 52.73% 57.44% 2005 39.93% 54.22% 58.99%
At any point in time, the number of Parole Violators Returned to Custody (PV-RTC) in California prisons represents about 10 percent or less of the total prison population. If we assume this group spends about 90-100 days in prison, there would need to be a drastic reduction in the number of PV RTCs sent to prison in order to have an impact on the overall prison population.
According to a 2008 report Parole Violations and Revocations in California, the CDCR the parole violation system can be characterized as follows:
- Two-thirds (65 percent) of all parole violations were for new criminal behavior (arrests).
- More closely supervised parolees did not seem to be deterred from violation behavior.
- Of the parole violations evaluated in 2003 and 2004, eighty-four percent involved new criminal violations.
- Cases involving more charges, and more serious charges were likely to receive harsher treatment.
- Parolees with longer and more serious histories of criminal behavior were likely to be considered public safety risks by the court and board-decision makers, and their cases were treated accordingly.
From 2004 to 2010, the proportion of parole violators versus new admissions changed for both men and women in California state prisons. There was an increase in new admissions and a corresponding decrease in PV-RTCs from 2004 to 2010. The CDCR has little control over the New Admissions and the Parole Violator with New Term rates. These represent Court commitments while the PV-RTC group is within the jurisdiction of CDCR, for the most part through the Board of Parole Hearings process.
California State Prison Population
Proportion by 2004-2010
Men 2004 2007 2010 New Admissions 63.1% 62.8% 65.8% Parole Violator With New Term 24.5% 25.3% 25.2% Parole Violator Returned to Custody 12.3% 11.8% 8.9% Women New Admissions 69.2% 65.7% 72.9% Parole Violator With New Term 17.5% 20.1% 18.5% Parole Violator Returned to Custody 13.3% 14.2% 8.6%
“Low-level” drug and property offenders
Data available on type of commitment offense is usually categorized in as Violent, Property, Drug, and Other. These categories only represent the type of “commitment offense”; there are usually other associated crimes and also a history of criminal offenses for those committed to prison.
According the 2005 Rand Corporation report concerning prison sentences on low-level drug charges in California, “In California, there seems to be support for the prosecution contention that the people imprisoned on possession charges have more extensive criminal histories or have cases that involve larger amounts of drugs.” The apparent “low-level” drug offender may not be as innocuous as he or she appears on the surface.
The drug offender who happens to commit crimes may, in fact, be the criminal who happens to use drugs. The parole violator, who remains in the community following a “technical violation”, may be the criminal who finds another victim and a longer prison term. A concerted effort needs to be brought to bear on examining the impact the policy changes in response to the prison population management problems are having on the community and the employees working for the CDCR. Policy makers need to keep in mind that they are dealing with more than just numbers; their actions can directly impact people’s lives.
The criminal justice system is a self-organizing, complex, adaptive system. The portion dealing with corrections impacts not only the operation of the prisons and parole, but the community as well.
Politicians, academicians, judges, and less than competent former corrections officials should carefully examine the data before developing ill-conceived policies or regulations that will create hazards for the taxpayers. Trends tend to ebb and flow and it is difficult to accurately determine where the trend lines will go next and what confounding variables will drive the changes.