Friday, June 4, 2010




Most Californians, all polls show, want to cut the costs of running America’s largest state prison system, where the care and feeding of an average inmate runs to about $47,000 per year.

But those same polls also show most Californians want dangerous criminals kept behind bars at least as long as they remain a public menace.

This seeming contradiction is reflected in the electoral arena, where – for example – Republican Meg Whitman has campaigned to build more prisons in order to end overcrowding, but also wants to cut the prison budget. How she could manage both is anyone’s guess. It’s equally a mystery where anyone might find money to build more prisons without issuing more bonds of the same type whose repayment currently weighs so heavily on the state budget. That's one reason why Gov. Schwarzenegger's current budget proposal would fob some state prisoners back onto county jails.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Jerry Brown just wants to cut the prison budget, but offers no details, promising only – as he does with many budget issues – that he will begin intense meetings with all legislators regardless of party almost immediately after the November election.

This all made it refreshing when J. Clark Kelso, the controversial court-appointed prison health czar who once proposed expanding inmate health facilities to the tune of about $8 billion, stepped up with a very logical cut:

Parole a handful of longtime inmates who are physically incapable of doing anyone harm and save upwards of $40 million per year. The full amount he listed was $213 million over five years.

Good idea, Clark, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Kelso was talking about the cost savings of releasing just 32 prisoners who are identified as severely incapacitated. They’re all in such bad shape they can’t hurt a flea.

Kelso’s small group included 21 longtime convicts languishing in civilian nursing facilities or hospitals where laws and regulations require round-the-clock supervision by prison guards. No matter how incapacitated they are, the guards stay with them, often drawing overtime pay. Cost for each of them runs more than $1.9 million a year, which tends to raise the system-wide average cost of holding a prisoner.

It’s true that if released, some of these criminals might end up on Medi-Cal, also getting government to cover their medical expenses on the outside. But Medi-Cal is largely federally funded, taking much of the onus off the state. And there would be no guards for them anymore, saving millions per year. The guards they have now supposedly serve more to protect these prisoners from any revenge-minded former associates than to protect the public from them.

The other 11 on the Kelso list sit in prison facilities and cost the state “only” $114,000 per year each. A classic example of an inmate like this was Susan Denise Atkins, who died of cancer last year in the California Institution for Women at Chino. Atkins, a onetime follower of the malignantly murderous cult leader Charles Manson who inflicted multiple stabbings upon Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in 1969, had become a model prisoner before she became terminal.

Unload those prisoners and you make a start at cutting some of the least logical of prison expenses.

But that should only be a start. For California now runs the world’s largest geriatric care system, mandated by the 1990s-era three-strikes-and-you’re-out law that can make lifers out of shoplifters and car thieves. The fact is that most violent criminals are young men; few murderers and rapists are over 35.

But once you’re a lifer in a California prison, you also get health care for life. As Kelso says, “When you take away someone’s freedom, whatever the reason, you take on responsibility for them.”

So why not parole all inmates over age 65 who have served more than 25 years and whose behavior and evaluation by prison psychiatrists determines them not to be physically dangerous?

Give them electronic ankle bracelets. Track them carefully. Maybe even give them food stamps so they can survive in an outside world that’s no longer familiar.

But get them out of the prison system where holding them now does the state far more harm than good.

Doing this, of course, would require a major revision of three-strikes, and voters have been unwilling to do this when modifications were proposed to them via ballot initiatives.

But times were better then, the last attempt at change coming via the 2004 Proposition 66. With the economics of both the state and its prisons substantially worsened, perhaps a moderate, sensible loosening of three-strikes’ rigid requirements could now pass.

It’s the sensible way to cut prison spending and provide state budget relief with only a minuscule risk of harm to the public. And it will be interesting to see whether any significant candidate for governor has the courage to get behind a plan like this.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment