It’s Time to Deal with Recidivism

Vice President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys

California needs a comprehensive approach to lowering incarceration rates – a plan that will not only lower incarceration levels, but preserve the historically low crime rates we currently enjoy. Sacramento’s current approach to this problem is mass early-release for felons – potentially at the expensive of public safety. A more ambitious and effective strategy – that simultaneously reduces incarceration and crime rates – would be to invest in comprehensive programs that reduce recidivism. This will require government spending on meaningful work programs for those released from state prison.

Since 1980, incarceration rates skyrocketed from 80 inmates for every 100,000 Californians to a peak of 701 per 100,000 in 2006. A combination of factors forced California to confront this problem, most notable of which was a 2009 federal court order mandating the state to abate prison overcrowding. State leaders had two options: Build more prisons or release prisoners.

Our leaders opted for the cheaper option by reducing our prison population by 55,000 inmates. This mass early-release was implemented by a combination of laws that shifted our prison population to local jails (Realignment), produced much-needed reforms to the Three-Strikes law (Proposition 36), and effectively decriminalized theft and drug crimes (Proposition 47). In 2016, the voters approved Proposition 57-another instrument designed to lower the prison population via mass release-under the false promise that lower sentences would increase public safety.

All of these measures were designed to lower incarceration rates on the cheap. However, despite the dramatically lower prison population, the budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) actually went up from $9.1 billion in 2006 to a proposed $11.3 billion in 2017.

Not only did the measures fail to reduce costs. They did virtually nothing to ensure a sustained reduction in the prison population in the future. That longer-term approach requires tackling recidivism- an underlying driver of continuously elevated incarceration rates. Yet recidivism rates continue to remain high despite the promises made during Realignment that local control and ending parole violations would reduce them. Again, the state decided to take the inexpensive approach to deal with this problem. The cheap solution was to not send parole violators back to state prison for their violations. Instead, they shifted supervision to county probation agents. These changes aimed to lower cost but not resolve the underlying problems.

The underlying problems turn on recidivism. If we want to lower recidivism rates that hover around 70 percent, we need to confront a fundamental question: how do we reintegrate felons back into society after they spend years in prison?

As with high incarceration rates, government leaders have opted for the cheap and narrow fix when it comes to high recidivism rates. Take the “ban the box” proposal. It costs government nothing. It sounds progressive. It’s not a counterproductive idea, but it is a naïve and cheap effort to resolve a complicated problem. It only takes an employer a Google search and basic arithmetic to figure out an applicant’s incarceration record.

Recidivism reduction is an area where government should take the lead. A key first step would entail creating the equivalent of the California Conversation Corp (“CCC”) for those leaving prison. The state will benefit because it will improve our infrastructure and our environment. Those leaving prison will benefit from the stability provided by the CCC and the skill set obtained by working on infrastructure and environmental projects.

For those unfamiliar with this program, the CCC was modeled after FDR’s CCC. It trains, employs, and houses young people and sends them out on projects across the state. It was founded in 1976 by Governor Jerry Brown who envisioned it as “a combination Jesuit seminary, Israeli kibbutz and Marine Corps boot camp.”

We could use this program to clean a felon’s criminal record of certain types of convictions. If graduates remain crime-free after a decade of being in the program, they could get their convictions dismissed. This program would create a real path towards redemption and reintegration. We would need the active participation of district attorney’s offices, parole, and the newly created CCC to recommend removal. Together this triad of stakeholders would then ask the courts to dismiss the conviction.

For those serious about redemption, this additional carrot is likely to improve an inmate’s performance pending release from prison. Inmates will be incentivized to do well in prison so that they will be accepted into the CCC with the hope that their record would be cleansed.

Since the societal value of a conviction diminishes with the time lapsed between the defendant being crime-free and the date of conviction, cleaning a felon’s record will pose little danger to public safety. This is because a prior conviction is only valuable to determine and enhance sentences. If the convict is living a productive and socially integrated life, the usefulness of the conviction actually acts against society’s interest by creating an unnecessary stigma on that person. This stigma includes a barrier to employment. Not only are felons barred from certain positions – including, ironically, the CCC – but they are less likely to be hired by the private sector because of their criminal background. Therefore the removal of a criminal record benefits society by removing an unnecessary barrier to otherwise productive people – a barrier that could lead criminals with fewer viable avenues other than crime.

It is time that Sacramento begins a real discussion that does not lead off with myopic approaches, such as early-release of prisoners or lower sentences, which may simply be counteracted by high recidivism and crime rates. We need to tackle this problem with long-term solutions that require a substantial investment capable of giving meaningful employment to our newly released felons. We need to give them the opportunity to clean their records. We need to give them the opportunity to remain forever free.

Eric W. Siddall is Vice President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.

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