*The U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered the state of California to address its prison overcrowding problem. As a “quick fix” remedy, nearly 30,000 low level (non-violent) offenders will be released statewide in the next few months.
Nearly 12,000 in Los Angeles County, and the County has a FEW perplexing dilemmas; 1) where are all these parolees going to live? Los Angeles NIMBY persona (not in my backyard) means the poorer and more impoverished areas of the city are going to receive a disproportionate number; 2) with unemployment already between 24% and 40% (depending who’s numbers you cite), where are they going to work.
We all know ex-offender unemployment rates are nearly 700% (seven times) of the national unemployment rate of 9.2%, with only one in four being able to find permanent work. Early parolees and probationers must find work in a relatively short time (usually 30 days…though many aren’t released until they can prove they have work); but the biggest dilemma Los Angeles County has is who will supervise these newly released ex-offenders. Los Angeles County Probation Department is under massive scrutiny because of its failures to properly supervise ex-offenders.
So instead of overhauling the department, L.A. County is considering another solution; allowing the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department to supervise parolees. The state legislature thinks it’s a good idea because they can save some money in cash strapped budget. Did the hair just stand up on your neck (like it did mine when I first heard this)? It should’ve. This is unprecedented and the first step to us being a police state. It sounds like “common sense” solution but is full of constitutional conflicts.
If done, Los Angeles would be the first county in the nation to do this. No other county in California, and no other county in the nation has done this or is doing this. There is a reason there’s a wall between law enforcement, the Courts and the Justice Department. The very people who sent many of these parolees away, some under very suspicious-even false circumstances, would be asked to supervise their release and rehabilitation. I can imagine sitting across the desk for the officer that arrested me (or his buddy) and sent me away, and having a great deal of confidence that the system that may have compromised me once is poised to do it again. Most police think someone who has broken the law once can’t change. Even after it’s been proven time and time again that people can change for the better and turn their lives around, police are the last ones to give you that benefit of the doubt. Not coming out of prison…their biases and suspicions are too high. It also opens another door of possible collusion where judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers already have a cozy, near incestuous relationship. One arrests, one is the tryer of fact that determines guilt, the last is the determiner of penalty. Once law enforcement and criminal justice, are out of the picture, the state (or federal) prison systems hold you until your have “paid your debt.” Federal or state probations are supposed to evaluate one without bias on their re-entry and re-assimilation into society. I’m not convinced law enforcement could be that objective.
Now California didn’t get into this predicament overnight. The state made a concentrated effort to divest in education and invest in prisons, as its primary measure of social control. Don’t educate them. Lock em up and re-lock them when they get out. In 2006, then Governor Arnold Schwrazenegger warned that the state’s prison system was in crisis as state recidivism is an alarming 70%, meaning nearly three out of four inmates that are released, return to prison. That is (still) the highest in the nation. If the United States of America is a “prison nation” with more than 2 million people imprisoned, California is the prison nation’s “capitol state.” California is the nation’s largest jailer with nearly 180,000 prisoners in its statewide corrections system, a system that only has some 80,000 plus beds. The prison industrial complex thrives in California, having built 22 new prisons since 1985 while only building ONE new state university. The prison officer’s union has become one of the most powerful in the state and employment at California prisons are amongst the best compensated in the nation. My point here is that there was plenty of incentive to overcrowd. Even when California didn’t have the money to operate all the prisons it built. Nearly 60% of California inmates are in prison for non-offenses and California death row inmates have the longest appeal process in the nation (nearly 23 years is average death row inmates stay). Texas death row appeal process is less than three years. California’s statewide prison budget is larger than its education budget. Arnold called that out on his way out the door, but did little to reverse the trend. He was going to let inmates out of prison and he wasn’t going against the prison guard lobby. So the courts had to do what the state refused to do…prisoners do have some rights, as few as they are. But now we are forced into a “situation” whereby the poor and disenfranchised are poised to be victimized again. Los Angeles County Sheriff, Lee Baca, is a compassionate reasonable man who has proven that he can barely make a dent in to abusive culture of his department. And he won’t be there forever…more the reason not to do it. I believe both prisoners and the citizens would have a constitution challenge if the Board of Supervisors carry this out. It violates both the rights of the accused AND the rights of society.
Los Angeles County’s best option is to overhaul the Probation Department. Put it in receivership like they did the Health Department and Children & Family Services. But don’t give it to the Sheriffs Department. Parolee supervision will then become just another blurred line of abused authority.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.