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By Miriam Raftery

Hear our radio interview with Sheriff Bill Gore on the impacts of this decision:

October 1, 2013 (Sacramento) – A three-judge panel has denied Governor Jerry Brown’s request for a three-year postponement of a federal court order to release or transfer prisoners to ease overcrowding.  Instead, the judges gave the Governor a mere 30-day extension and further prohibited California from shipping prisoners to out-of-state private prisons, though transfers to local county jails with space will be allowed.

In an interview with East County Magazine’s radio show on Friday, Sheriff Bill Gore said California has among the highest recidivism rates in the nation at 72%.  The state is “just warehousing people” he said. Instead, he believes the state should have rehabilitation programs such as drug and alcohol rehab, literacy, anger management, education and job training to give prisoners a better “chance of succeeding when they get out” by getting employment and not committing new crimes.   Such programs have been rolled out locally.

“You’ve got to do more than warehouse them,” he said of prisoners, adding state facilities were so crowded that there was no room for classrooms or rehab nor funding due to the budget shortfall.  “If we just lower the recidivism rate from 72% to 50% that will be a big success,” he observed, adding that 95% of those in jails and prisons will eventually get out. “Doesn’t it make sense to have program in place to give them a chance of succeeding?” he said, noting that it costs $50,000 a year to house each prisoner. 

Sheriff Gore is implementing such programs locally in conjunction with other agencies in our region and community partners. “When this came down, we didn’t like it, we fought it, but this is reality,” the Sheriff said of the state shifting prisoners to local jurisdictions. He added that the biggest challenge for rehabilitating prisoners is finding employerse willing to hire ex-inmates.  

Sheriff Gore also questioned the legality of the judges’ decision and said the Governor will appeal.  San Diego’s jails are full, with no room for more prisoners, so any transfers of felons from state prisons here will force release of some lower level offenders already in local jails, he said.   

Under a court order to reduce California’s prison population by another 9,600 prisoner’s at year’s end to relieve overcrowding or face contempt of court charges, Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law Senate Bill 105.  The state currently only has about 5,000 beds, so if the decision by the judges stands,  more than 4,000 prisoners will have to be released, Gore said.

The bill provided that Brown would ask a panel of judges to delay the order to allow the state time to expand rehabilitation programs to reduce the prison population, including mental health and substance abuse treatment.  But if that request is rejected, SB 105 sought to shift thousands of inmates to county jails and to private, out-of-state prisons. The latter option is now off the table unless a higher court overturns the decision on appeal.

California has already reduced its inmate population by 46,000, through a combination of releasing prisoners and moving some to county jails. The latter has forced release of some lower level offenders at local levels, a factor that has been blamed for an increase in crime in some areas, though Sheriff Gore said it’s too early to tell if a small uptick in local crime – consistent with a national trend – is due to the prisoner releases or other factors. Sheriff Gore said he believes the recession has probably been the major factor.

To date, most prisoners were released only a few days before their sentences were due to end, he said, adding that the region’s crime rate overall is actually at historic lows.  The Sheriff is using options such as electronic monitoring to track lower-risk offenders in an alternative custody program or work furlough program, as well as improved technology to solve more crimes particularly on property crimes.

Sending prisoners out of state could have eased overcrowding in California, but also pose hardships for families seeking to visit incarcerated loved ones far away. Private prisons have drawn their own share of controversy, including accusations of inhumane conditions by the ACLU and others.

One private prison in Mississippi was so infested with rats that prisoners traded them as pets, the ACLU has stated.  Some private prisons have been accused of denying prisoners mental healthcare and medical care.   A hunger strike in California occurred due to private prisons keeping some prisoners in solitary confinement for years on end. 

A study by the Rand Corporation has found that a crucial component to reducing recidivism, or repeat offenses, would be to provide education and/or job training to prisoners that could enable them to land jobs when released. 

Educating prisoners has met with opposition from some opposed to spending more money on inmates.  The cost of incarceration is $55,000 per bed per year in California, however, so alternatives that can reduce the inmate population without raising crime rates (as release alone may do) are options more and more legislators on both sides of the aisle are now exploring, along with law enforcement officials.

A little-known negative impact of realignment is on inmate fire camps, the Sheriff revealed. "Realignment has had an undesirable effect on staffing fire camps," he told ECM.  The state is now insisting on charging counties to man fire camps--and there is a shortage of low-offender inmates to staff them.  "In spite of how badly it irritates me, we've got to keep this county safe," he said, adding that the County has made an agreement with the state to pay for that staffing, but there are only about 100 eligible inmates available locally. "It's very troubling," he said.

Sheriff Gore also spoke about the potential impacts of a federal government shut-down due to the Congressional impasse over a spending bill.  He does not anticipate a big impact if a shutdown is short-term, but said processing of paperwork could be delayed. He expressed hope that the shutdown would be short-term and that "Congress comes to its senses."

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