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Counties ready to handle state's juvenile offenders, study says

County governments have invested nearly a half-billion dollars over the past 15 years to modernize juvenile lockups and now have the capacity to absorb offenders currently housed in the state’s youth prisons, if those facilities are closed, a new study contends. 

The report [PDF] by the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice offers fresh data in support of Gov. Jerry Brown’s renewed push to shutter the state’s three remaining youth prisons as part of a historic realignment of California’s criminal justice system.

A total of $455,779,103 was allocated to renovate county facilities, according to the report, with 96 percent going to new maximum-security juvenile halls in 41 jurisdictions.

“These state-of-the-art buildings stand in stark contrast to the dilapidated and archaic 19th-century relics that DJF (Division of Juvenile Facilities) utilizes to house its remaining wards,” reads the report. “The review demonstrates that local secure county-based facilities currently surpass existing state youth correctional facilities in architectural design and structural integrity.”

Counties that allocated the most money for construction of juvenile facilities as of November 2007 include:

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Savings from '3 strikes' reform may be smaller than claimed

Prisoners serving long sentences under California’s “three strikes” law are so expensive that legislative analysts say releasing some of them early could eventually save the state $100 million.

A proposed ballot measure, called the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 [PDF], would amend the landmark sentencing law that brought jail terms of 25 years to life to criminals convicted of three offenses.

Major savings to California taxpayers are central to proponents’ pitch for the measure. But if it passes, the big reduction in state prison spending is not guaranteed.

The measure would narrow courts’ authority to sentence “third-strikers” to 25 years or more in prison unless their new offense is serious or violent in nature. Secondly, it would allow a select group of third-strikers serving a decades-long sentence for a minor crime to apply for a reduced term.

 

Written by a pair of Stanford University law professors, David Mills and Michael Romano, the initiative contends it would “save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars every year for at least ten years.”

The state Legislative Analyst’s Office agreed late last year that it would cut prison costs [PDF], though not quite as significantly as claimed. Savings from the measure could save California more than $100 million in total after years of releasing third-strikers early, the office’s report states.

But it isn’t clear yet how many prisoners would be eligible for reduced sentences.

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State auditor calls for end to prisoner rehabilitation test

The state auditor is recommending that California’s corrections system shut down tests that determine what rehabilitation prisoners need, calling the tools unproven and little used.

Since 2006, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has developed and repeatedly revised the assessments, called Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS for short). It is composed of two tests. The first is given to incoming inmates, gauging levels of criminal thinking, violence, substance abuse and educational needs. The other assessment is for prisoners about to go on parole and is different from the first in that it measures housing and employment prospects on the outside.

In a report released yesterday, auditors found numerous shortcomings [PDF] in how prisons have used assessment scores.

Rank-and-file officers within the corrections system show “a lack of buy-in on COMPAS” and doubt the tests are useful, the report states. The department often fails to use the scores when deciding where to place inmates, and few inmates even receive the exams (see chart).

State prison officials acknowledge problems highlighted by the auditor, but strongly disagree with the overall conclusion. The department plans to continue, upgrade and expand the assessments.

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Prison audit finds ‘high potential for fraud’

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation lacks adequate financial controls and repeatedly failed to recoup overpayments of salary and travel advances from its employees, an audit released yesterday by the state controller's office found.

The report concluded that the department's effort to collect those overpayments was "grossly inadequate," and as a result of the deficiencies, there was "high potential for fraud and misappropriation of public funds." The review included records from the 2009-10 fiscal year.

 

“This is the latest in a series of agency audits conducted by my staff that point to the waste and abuse of state funds due to the lack of attention to collecting overpayments," Controller John Chiang said in a statement. "Gov. Brown and I are working together to identify the causes of these problems and to protect public funds.”

As of July 30, 2010, the corrections department had more than $6 million in outstanding salary and travel advances owed to the state, including $465,000 that was more than three years overdue, according to the audit. The report also found a discrepancy of more than $4 million between the department's own records and bank reconciliation documents.

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18 counties take outsized share of prison spending, study finds

California has too many inmates, the U.S. Supreme Court and nearly everyone else agrees.

Orange-jumpsuited felons pack cell blocks, and row after row of bunk beds claim countless square feet in gymnasiums and other correctional buildings in the state’s 33 prisons.

The burden of paying for this system falls on all Californians.

But a third of the state bears greater responsibility for our overcrowded prisons than their fellow residents, according to a recently released study from Santa Clara University’s law school. W. David Ball, a criminal law professor and the study’s author, devised a new statistical measure to determine how many new felons a California county can justify sending to prison each year.

In his report, titled “Tough on Crime (on the State’s Dime),” Ball argues that 18 counties consume far more prison spending than the rest of the state when violent crime rates are factored in.

The study compares San Bernardino and Alameda counties, which are similar in population size and number of violent offenses. They differ dramatically, however, when it comes to incarceration rates. San Bernardino County sent three times as many felons to prison as Alameda County did from 2000 through 2009.

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Groups press Brown for sentencing reforms

A team of advocacy groups is pushing Gov. Jerry Brown to include sentencing reforms in the revised state budget proposal he will unveil this month.

The three organizations – the American Civil Liberties Union of California, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights – contend that reducing charges [PDF] for simple drug possession and nonviolent property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors would yield many millions of dollars in cost savings to the deficit-plagued state.

Behind their argument for downgrading the drug possession penalties are poll numbers that suggest voters agree.

A survey of likely voters in March, funded jointly by the groups, found 72 percent* of respondents said they favor reducing the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor.

It is unknown if the governor, or voters, are interested in adding another politically volatile issue – prison sentences – to the pile of difficult budget decisions in the coming months.

The backdrop to the polling and lobbying is California’s fiscal crisis, as the state budget shortfall remains around $15 billion. Brown and lawmakers have already sliced $11 billion in spending.

The ACLU and its partners hope that their two sentencing reform proposals are part of the next round of cuts.

A felony conviction for simple drug possession can bring a three-year sentence in state prison.

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State auditor: Lingering prison probe wasted $366,000

The California Department of Corrections allowed a prison psychiatrist to continue to treat patients for four months after allegations of incompetence surfaced and wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary during its three-year misconduct probe, according to the state auditor.

The case was among several outlined yesterday in a new report by State Auditor Elaine Howle into allegations of employee misconduct.

The report found that when California prison officials determined the psychiatrist had negligently prescribed medications to patients, he was transferred to administrative duties instead of being fired. 

The 35-month investigation into his alleged misconduct wasted at least $366,656 in state funds by continuing to pay the psychiatrist more than $600,000 in salary, according to the auditor's report. This included two merit-based salary increases.

According to the state auditor's office, the prison internal affairs department had assigned a higher priority to other cases. But prison officials disagreed with some of the findings in the report and said they followed the law.

“We never assign anything a low priority,” said Terry Thornton, a prison spokeswoman.

One prison expert said the auditor's report doesn't capture other costs raised by the case. Ernest Galvan, a partner at the law firm Rosen, Bien & Galvan, which recently briefed a mental health case before the U.S. Supreme Court, said prisoners who receive substandard mental health care often become repeat offenders – costing the system even more.

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Despite fee hikes, UC still cheaper than prison

Even with the latest tuition increase, a year at Cal is still cheaper than a year at San Quentin.

After soul-searching and protest, University of California President Mark Yudof last month persuaded the regents to hike UC student fees by 8 percent. The increase will likely push the total cost of a year at the flagship campus, UC Berkeley, above $32,000 for the first time.

That’s California Watch’s projection, based on UC’s “estimated undergraduate student budgets,” a spending estimate that the university publishes to help students plan. The budgets include suggested costs for room, board and other necessary expenses.

UC was facing a billion-dollar cut in state aid, so Yudof said he was forced to ask the student body to pay more. Still, UC is less and less of a bargain every year. Today’s undergraduates had barely gotten used to the 32 percent fee hike that went into effect this year when the new one was imposed, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported

Nevertheless, on a per-capita basis, UC is still cheaper than another big and expensive component of the California state bureaucracy – the prison system.

According to the Department of Corrections data [PDF], it costs about $49,000 to keep an inmate in a California prison for a year.

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