Sometimes it can take more than a decade for a completely sensible idea to catch on. So it is with what may be the single best money-saving idea in the inventive preliminary budget proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown in early January.
That idea, part of a Brown plan to appease a panel of federal judges, calls for the possible parole of several thousand convicts who are sick or mentally impaired, plus a new parole program for elderly prisoners. This is spurred by the judges’ demand for even more releases of state prison inmates than the 22,000-plus already returned to their counties.
But it’s an idea first proposed to this column in 2002 by reader Ray Procunier, then a Grass Valley resident. Procunier, who died two years ago at age 86, was director of corrections in California under Gov. Ronald Reagan and during part of Brown’s first term in the 1970s. He also headed the prison systems of Texas and Utah.
“When Reagan was governor, we cut the prison population by one-third and there was no increase in crime, not even a blip,” he said 11 years ago, responding to a column. “I guarantee I could cut down today’s prison population by 100,000 or more and not hurt a soul in the process.”
Among his chief suggestions was the wholesale parole of prisoners over age 55, regardless of the Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out law or their specific sentences. He would have kept murderers, rapists and other serious sex offenders behind bars unless they had serious chronic illnesses. These tactics alone, Procunier said, would cut prison costs by more than $4 billion – equivalent to at least $5 billion in today’s dollars.
Now that Brown has made almost exactly the same idea a central point of his plan to comply with the court ruling on prison crowding, one big question is why it took so long for this idea to percolate to the surface. The most likely answer is inertia, along with a fear component, as no politician ever wants to appear soft on crime. That proclivity also helped produce Three-Strikes and to increase the state’s prison population from about 25,000 in 1980 to 170,000-plus in 2008. It took the court order to cut that down a bit.
So far, as Procunier predicted, there has been no significant statewide crime increase as a result of the early paroles. Releasing the sick and elderly would likely have a similar negligible impact.
That’s because national criminal statistics show most violent crimes are committed by persons in their teens, 20s and 30s, and very few by persons aged 55 or over. At the same time, the cost of maintaining hospitalized inmates ranges between $68,000 and $125,000 per year, depending on where they are treated. That’s significantly more than the average annual cost of about $47,000 for the typical healthy convict.
So far, 15 other states acting on this kind of information have begun expediting release of elderly prisoners, who can use pensions, savings, Social Security, welfare or the resources of relatives to cover expenses outside custody. Most ill inmates released early can be covered almost immediately by Medi-Cal under Obamacare, while the state gains not only prison space, but also can stop posting guards in each of their hospital rooms around the clock, required for prisoners hospitalized outside the prison system.
That’s why the new Brown plan makes so much sense, both as a means of helping comply with the court order and saving many millions, perhaps billions, of prison dollars. Too bad other California governors didn’t have the good sense to do this many years ago, when Procunier first suggested it.