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 last year’s state budget, one that is just now beginning fully to take hold.
The idea, part of a plan by Gov. Jerry Brown to appease a panel of federal judges demanding ever more releases of state prison inmates, calls for the possible parole of several hundred convicts who are chronically sick or mentally impaired, plus a new parole program that could affect thousands of the elderly, defined as over 60.
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 prison systems in 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 wrote 11 years ago, in response 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 major 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.
Brown made something very similar a central point of his plan to comply with the federal court’s ruling on prison-overcrowding. The big question: What took so long for this idea to percolate to the top?
The most likely answer is inertia, along with a fear component, as no politician ever wants to appear soft on crime. This proclivity helped produce Three-Strikes and to increase the state’s prison populace from about 25,000 in 1980 to 170,000-plus in 2008. It’s taken the court order to cut that down a bit.
So far, as Procunier predicted, the early paroles have caused no significant statewide crime increase. As of mid-March, California had set loose 74 elderly convicts, with thousands more waiting their turn. Releasing the chronically ill will likely have a similar negligible impact on crime, although just 76 such paroles had so far been approved.
This is true because national crime statistics show most violent crimes are committed by persons in their teens, 20s and 30s, and very few by persons aged 55 or above. At the same time, the cost of maintaining hospitalized inmates ranges between $68,000 and $125,000 per year apiece, depending on where they are treated. That’s significantly more than the average $47,000 annual cost for maintaining the typical healthy convict.
So far, 15 other states acting on this kind of information have begun expediting releases of elderly prisoners, who can use pensions, savings, Social Security, welfare or the resources of relatives to cover their 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 two guards in each of their hospital rooms around the clock, as required for prisoners hospitalized outside the prison system.
All this explains why the current Brown plan makes sense, both as a means of helping comply with the court order and saving many millions, perhaps billions, of prison dollars. Too bad Brown and other governors didn’t have the good sense to do this many years ago, after Procunier first suggested it.