May 22, 2013
The Body Baggers of Iraq
Posted on Jun 15, 2011
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer in the studio with Josh Scheer, and we’re speaking with David Muhammad, who is the chief probation officer of the Alameda County Probation Department. He’s also the author of an article called “Justice Best Administered Local.” And we’re here to talk about the California prison system, which is overcrowded by some 70,000 inmates, in our guest’s estimation, to the point where the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled it unconstitutional because of inhumane treatment. So you argue that the solution is this bill in California, AB 109 that would transfer some inmates to local facilities. Can you explain why?
David Muhammad: Yes. California prisons are built to hold, right now, 80,000 people. And there’s a little over 140,000 people in those prisons, and there’s an additional 10,000 in prisons outside of California that the state has sent them to because of this overcrowding issue. And California’s prison overcrowding issue is primarily two things: violations of probation and parole, people who are technical violators of probation and parole who get state prison time; and, secondly, lower-level offenders who are convicted, who have several convictions of lower-level, nonviolent crimes who end up in state prison. Two populations that don’t necessarily need to be in state prison. Not that nothing needs to happen to this population, but state prison, as the most serious consequence of criminal behavior in the state, should be for those people who have committed serious crimes. And so the governor has proposed a realignment plan to realign criminal justice to the counties throughout the state, a partial realignment. And so his proposal is that nonviolent, nonserious offenders who are in state prison, when they get out of state prison, instead of being supervised by parole—a state function—they would be supervised by probation, a local county function. Secondly, any new people who commit nonserious, nonviolent crimes, they would never be allowed to go to state prison. They could do local county jail time, and they could have alternatives like drug treatment—because we’re mostly talking about drug offenders here. They could do drug treatment, vocational training, residential programs, or even electronic monitoring, or some version of county jail and probation time. The third provision of that, on that adult side—there’s a juvenile version of it as well—but the third provision on the adult side is that violators of probation and parole couldn’t be violated and sent to state prison. They could be violated and sent to county jail, they could have other sanctions like electronic monitoring, ankle bracelet, they’ve got to go to a drug treatment program, they’ve got to do community service—or even up to three years in county jail. This is a reasonable solution to this problem; it does not—despite some of the fear-mongering and the inaccurate portrayals in the media—it does not have anybody get out of jail early. It means that they get out and they have local supervision, and any new people in this population would be dealt with locally as well, where justice is better administered on the local level.
Josh Scheer: And there’s been a lot of fear-mongering, hasn’t there…
David Muhammad: There has been. They said, oh, the Supreme Court, they’re going to release 44,000 people back into our communities and they’re all going to wreak havoc. And so the governor’s plan would ultimately not have a single person released early. There’s some time issues between how long it would take to implement AB 109, which is the legislation that is creating a realignment, and the two-year mandate. But it’s very likely that the two can meet, which would mean that not a single person is released early. All the people were even talking about changing their status from state to county, for all nonserious nonviolent offenders that in many of the states, they don’t even end up in state prison anyway. And so the fear-mongering really has been misplaced. It’s good for headlines, right? ‘Supreme Court Orders 40,000 Inmates Released Immediately.’ Right, so it certainly sells papers and magazines, but it’s just simply not true.
David Muhammad: It’s a great question. And there’s not enough good data around this. The three-strikers aren’t affected by this at all; they’re not affected by the Supreme Court decision, they’re not affected by the AB 109 realignment legislation. So nothing different is going to happen to them. There is pending legislation that says the third strike that you get life in prison for has to be a serious or violent offense. Because there is very reasonable lawsuits that say this is cruel and unusual punishment. If I steal from the store and get 25 to life for that, there’s something wrong with that. But if that is my third felony—and I’m not saying we do nothing. If someone has three felonies, we need some serious intervention, and there is some discussion that they need to be removed from society. But should you get 25 years to life for stealing from the store? Which, we have some cases that that actually happened. And so there’s a lot of support around legislation that has been introduced into the California Legislature that would say that third strike has to be a serious or violent offense.
Peter Scheer: So, what is the … this AB 109 would move a lot of people into county jails. What is the experiential difference between a state prison and a county jail? What is it like in there?
David Muhammad: It’s a good question. And just one further point of clarification: There’s technically nobody going from state prison to county jail in this.
Peter Scheer: OK.
David Muhammad: It just means when you get out of state prison …you’re going to go back to your communities anyway, right? ... these are people coming home to these communities anyway; nothing different at all. It just means instead of being supervised by state parole, you’re supervised by county probation, which the majority of citizens have no idea what the difference is. [Laughs] So, but what changes is, any new people who come under this classification of nonviolent, nonserious offender, they can never go to state prison. They do remain in county jail. So these are all people who were in county jail, and what often happens with this population is you get, let’s say, a two-year or a three-year sentence. With a three-year sentence, you get time served for good behavior and you get time—for every day you serve in state prison, you can get a day off of your sentence in county jail; it’s 85 percent. But that changes with this legislation…
Josh Scheer: Before you were the … chief probation officer of Alameda County, you were also the deputy commissioner of probation in the state of New York…. And in New York, you cut the prison population and … you had a drop in crime. So it’s about, going back to the fear-mongering, you can cut the prison population and I guess now they’re running about 50 percent, something like that?
David Muhammad: Yeah. It’s extraordinary. There’s three states—I think it’s Kentucky, New Jersey and New York, but particularly New York—that have done both: cut the prison population and reduced the crime rate. New York City in 1990 had 2,400 murders. In 2009, they had 400 murders. Right? A population of 8 million people. So proportionately, it’s the safest big city in the country. While the state prison system, which is vast majority people from New York City, has been drastically reduced. The New York State prisons are currently at 50 percent capacity; they have half the amount of people that they are built to hold, and now Gov. Cuomo in New York is really talking about closing facilities, consolidating. And so here you have California, which is at a hundred and, I think, seventy percent capacity. And some of the fear-mongering gets in the way of doing sensible, financially sensible, socially sensible reforms that can both protect public safety and reduce the enormous costs of corrections in the state.
Josh Scheer: And then, to get on this, this is a budget measure by the governor, but this is also something about rehabilitation versus incarceration, right? ...
David Muhammad: Yeah, this is really interesting, though. Michelle Alexander, who recently wrote a book, “The New Jim Crow,” which talks about incarceration, she had an interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times where she was complaining that some of these reforms were happening in the name of fiscal reform, right? So she mentioned this very interesting piece that Newt Gingrich and the NAACP had a joint press conference about prison reform. You know, interesting bedfellows [Laughs]. But AB 109 is about budget cuts, right? Now, it achieves some well, good intended reform … but ultimately, it’s about budget cuts. Now I, for one, say however we can get what we need to better public safety, better corrections, and secondly, more efficient, less costly government—and I think we can get it done, we can get both done. But yes, this is ultimately about cutting the California Department of Corrections’ budget, the spending that we put on corrections in this state, reducing it, and in so doing shifting some of those costs to local governments.
Peter Scheer: I’m really struck by this, there was an episode of “This American Life” recently where they talked about the prison system and how there’s no political advantage to freeing people who may be not a threat to society, and are just sort of cast aside in prison. How realistic is this? It seems like it makes a lot of sense, what was done in New York makes a lot of sense. So how are these programs achieved when they are, given that people generally approve of politicians who are, quote unquote, “tough on crime”? Meanwhile we’ve got this expanding prison state that exists here.
David Muhammad: I think luckily, now, we have some politicians that have learned lessons, and have a broader view on what works. And so you have a state attorney general, Kamala Harris, who—I love her saying, is “Be smart on crime”; that’s what we need to be. And so the bottom line is, treatment and rehabilitation are far more effective and far less costly than incarceration. More than 90 percent of the people who are incarcerated are coming home at some point, and if all we do is warehouse them, don’t provide any education or treatment, they’re going to come out worse; we haven’t developed their communities, we haven’t helped develop them. And so this is about being smart on crime, spending money on more rehabilitation, on more treatment, on more local services, on more local coordination. And I think people are beginning to get that. And so I think there is actually a lot of likelihood that this is going to go forward. Part of that likelihood is the other part: that incarceration is expensive. It costs the state of California $50,000 per year to incarcerate an adult inmate, $230,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile. And so those costs, in this very difficult budget climate, are just unreasonable. And we have to change the system. When you have a system that is far too costly and ineffective, it’s almost a no-brainer that we need to make significant changes.
Peter Scheer: Well, thanks so much for enlightening us today. We’ll let you get back to work.
David Muhammad: Absolutely, thank you all.
Josh Scheer: Thank you.
Peter Scheer: David Muhammad is chief probation officer of the Alameda County Probation Department.
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