Joan Petersilia of Stanford University explains how California's correction system—once a national model—lost its way.
The following is a transcript:
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. I’m Rob Wolf, and welcome to “New Thinking,” a podcast produced by the Center for Court Innovation. Today I’m talking to Joan Petersilia, a law professor at Stanford University and one of the nation’s foremost criminologist.
She’s the author of 11 books about crime and public policy. And her research on parole reform, prison reintegration and sentencing policy has fueled changes in policies throughout the nation. A criminologist with a background in empirical research and social science, Dr. Petersilia is also faculty co-director for the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.
JOAN PETERSILIA: My pleasure.
WOLF: It seems to me that California is the perfect place to be for someone with a professional focus on parole reform and prisoner reintegration. You, in fact, have described California’s prison system as a paradox of excess and deprivation.
I gather you mean by that and I’m quoting your article that appeared last year in the University of Chicago’s journal, Crime and Justice, “no other state spends more on its correction system and gets back less.” I thought maybe you could elaborate a little bit on that idea for me.
PETERSILIA: Well, California spends $49,000 a year per inmate and that’s compared to the annual national average, which is about $24,000.
So we spent twice as much and yet our recidivism rate is 70 percent, meaning that 70 percent of everybody who leaves the California prisons will come back to prison within three years. And that compares to a national average of about 40 percent.
So we spend more and we actually get less in terms of reduced recidivism and reduced crime. And that was what I meant by kind of a paradox. You would think if you’re spending the most, it would in fact be doing the best. But we’re spending the most and doing the worst.
WOLF: Maybe you can bring me up to date on what has happened in California regarding this recent federal court ruling that requires the state to bring the prison population down from about 158,000 to 115,000. And I understand that would still leave the state’s prisons at about 137 percent of their designed capacity.
PETERSILIA: You will find two court cases that we have had in litigation for over 15 years in California that finally reached kind of the end point in terms of the judges saying enough is enough. They have asked the Department of Corrections to basically give better medical care and dental care. So that’s what the two cases revolve around.
And the courts have said that the overcrowding in California prisons is such that there’s no way an inmate can get adequate medical care or dental care. So the case has evolved but now become a test of overcrowding. And so, courts have ruled that in order to be able to deliver the adequate medical care, the prison system must in fact become uncrowded. And in the judge’s opinion, that means reducing from about 170,000, which is what we have today, to about a 135,000 or so within the next two years.
WOLF: You have recognized in your research and your writing and advocacy that prisoners suffer disproportionately from health problems, mental illness, addiction; and clearly, would benefit and need medical care. But I imagine you feel that just releasing them without any kind of treatment services doesn’t really address the underlying issue or the deeper issue of reintegration.
PETERSILIA: Well, prisoners, as you’ve said, are an incredibly sick population. They are physically about 10 years older on average. If you take a 50-year old, (their health) will look like a 60-year old.
So what’s happened to the U.S. prison population as sentences have gotten longer and as the population has aged, and as medical costs, all medical costs, not only for prisoners but for people outside of prison, have escalated over the last decade, this has just kind of become a perfect storm.
We actually spend in California $14,000 per inmate for medical care. In the outside free citizens the average is about $4,000.
WOLF: It’s interesting because again that’s another example I guess of your – the paradox of excess and deprivation. I mean to spend so much more on prisoner healthcare and yet get so little really.
In your research, in your work, you know, you focused a lot on prisoner integration. What’s at stake here? Why is it important to focus on this issue and is it being lost now in the budget crunches that so many states, including California, are facing and issues like overcrowding?
PETERSILIA: Well, through that article that you mentioned—and I love the word “excess” leading to kind of less than public safety because another example of this is in the parole system, which we’re now addressing.
California is the only state that everybody who leaves prison goes on formal parole supervision for one to three years; usually an average of about two and a half. Other states, again, send maybe 30 to 40 percent of prisoners to parole. So when people get out, they in parole in most states select the most dangerous, put them on parole supervision, drug test them, watches them closely, and then violate them if they commit a new crime or serious violation of parole.
California has, again, incredible excess. Everybody—and that means 120,000 people who leave prison in California each year—goes on parole supervision, which means that nobody really gets watched very closely.
So again, we have excess of kind of what you would imagine kind of legal control, but very little public safety because it really means, you know, one size fits all ends up meaning one size fits no one.
Here we saw a classic example of Phillip Garrido, a sex offender who, you know, abducted Jaycee Lee Dugard and kept her as a – I guess you’d have to call it a sex slave in his backyard and he fathered two of her children. And people have to ask the question: how is it that he was on parole for 10 years and nobody knew he was doing this kind of thing?
And when you know the parole system, it didn’t – wasn’t surprising to me at all because of the 120,000 people in California the parole agents are trying to watch, and we only have about 5,000 parole agents, so they’re just simply spread too thin
WOLF: I actually had read something a few years ago; I think it was in 2005. California was experimenting I thought with putting fewer people on parole.
PETERSILIA: Well, we are actually right now as we speak, our legislature is voting this week on a major, major – I mean it’s the most important thing I think that has happened to California corrections in at least 20 years. Our legislature is now voting on a parole reform package which will do three things.
It will place only high risk people and moderate risk people on active parole supervision. Then it will shorten the length of time that people are on parole. So people who are doing well on parole can actually discharge their parole at one year instead of three years.
And then, probably most importantly, is the third aspect: if you violate parole in California and your violation is only a technical violation, meaning you tested positive for drugs, let’s say, or missed an appointment, you no longer will be sent to prison. You’ll only serve time in a local jail. That will cut our prison population significantly.
WOLF: Are you concerned that in cutting the number of prisoners on parole the result will not necessarily be higher quality supervision for those who are still on parole, but it will just be the same kind of supervision that’s already being delivered?
PETERSILIA: Well, I think the next major issue that criminologists and those interested in crime control have to face is that what happens when prisoners are released back to communities where the services that are necessary for their success are in fact being cut. And so, many of us who studied re-entry know that it wasn’t just about getting them off parole. That really was not the intent.
The intent was to get them simply off surveillance and getting them into some services plus surveillance. We know that what works is not simply sending somebody to treatment alone. That hasn’t worked, and also, doesn’t work if you simply, you know, put them on electronic monitoring without services.
So a lot of the research shows that you must combine treatment with a kind of deterrence or surveillance. Unfortunately, what is now happening is in most states, because of the pressure to reduce people from prisons, we’re all going to see a lot of releases. We’re going to see releases from prison; we’re going to see releases from parole; and we’re going to see technical violators not being sent back to prison.
Now I’m in favor of doing that if the offender is low risk. But I was never in favor of it to simply let them out without anything. And that doesn’t do anybody any good and threatens public safety, so the plan was always to provide services. So what we’re getting is kind of half of the plan but the key ingredient missed.
WOLF: You’ve participated in discussions here at the Center for Court Innovation that explored the topic of failure and what we can learn from failed initiatives. With that in mind, I was wondering if you could tell me what re-entry reforms have you tested in California that you think work or perhaps don’t work but tell us important lessons.
PETERSILIA: Well, I’ve become involved in a small project that is counted across California as being one of the most successful re-entry projects at a local level. And I’ve learned the lesson about what it takes to make re-entry successful. And it’s more than simply programs. You know, an offender is more than the sum of his program.
And we used to think if we just got them into the right program, whether it be a drug treatment facility or an employment or work training, that that would be enough. It clearly isn’t enough. Even once you get those three things, and I think the three keys of re-entry are addiction under control, stability and housing and a job. If you get all those three things going, it’s still kind of isn’t enough we’ve learned. And you’ve really got to have kind of that community support.
And with law enforcement, with children, with families, they’re all part of kind of this network or constellation of support for offenders who eventually go straight and stay straight. We have some success of what it means to get somebody to go straight in the short-run. We actually have pretty good success at getting somebody to go straight for 12 months to 24 months, even 36 months.
The real challenge is getting somebody to refrain from crime for the rest of their lives. And what we’ve learned about that is it eventually is about families and children and parents and a broader community. And when it really works, all of that kind of comes together.
So we know a lot about what it takes. The problem is it’s not easy and it’s not inexpensive; and we need to acknowledge that. Community corrections, if done right, is actually probably as expensive as prison in the short-run. But what we’re looking for is those lifetime cost benefits.
WOLF: I think it’s fascinating that California once had what was considered the nation’s premier corrections system. I guess that was from about the ’40s to the ’60s. So I’d like to ask you, in your view what happened? What can we learn from where California is today? And do you think California will ever get back to that?
PETERSILIA: Well, California, as you said, used to be a national model. And in fact, many of the programs that are being used today, not only in California and the United States, but internationally, in fact, came from ideas developed in California corrections in the period between the ’50s all up through the end of the ’70s. So there was a 25-year period where California was really a model system of how to treat juveniles, in particular, as well as adults and how to bring community into sanctioning, if you will.
And then you have to ask, well, how did it go from this model to now I would think what everybody would recognize is probably one of the most dysfunctional systems we have? And I think nobody could have foreseen how we just chipped away at it at every level. We chipped away at it in terms of giving control over to a huge prisoner guard union so that, in fact, their money became very “money still talked.” They were able to give large amounts of money to legislators running for office. Those legislators turned around, ran on tough-on-crime platforms, passed things like three strikes, lengthened sentences, sent more people to prison. And as a result, funding for programs had to be reduced.
So we were simply building, building, building and cutting programs. And so, over the years what we go was, in fact, overcrowded, dangerous – 50 percent of our prisoners never participated in any program at all for their entire stay in a California prison.
WOLF: Ultimately, I guess we can see it as a blessing, the kind of overcrowding, in a way because it encourages a search for alternatives. And hopefully, I guess we would hope effective alternatives that guarantee or promote the public safety and a successful reintegration of ex-inmates into communities.
PETERSILIA: Well, I think I see the current times as a crisis for sure. But in every crisis, there’s the potential for opportunity. And I would like to think that what this does do for us is it makes us rethink and realign who should be in prison.
And I think most people and the public want dangerous, violent people in prison. And they’re willing to pay for it. And they kind of really are also—the public opinion polls—willing to rethink what we do with non-violent, particularly drug offenders.
So I think that we will be having those debates and the poor economy kind of got those debates to the forefront. But the real question is “what do we do with the third of the prison population that are there primarily for drug use, drug addiction, drug sale?” We simply can’t let those people go without any treatment or any programs. Then we will simply have kind of a short-term gain and a long-term blip in the crime rate, which will happen two, three, four, five years out.
I think we’ve got to really think hard about “if not prison, what?” and that to me is the key question that we now need to address.
WOLF: Well, it’s been fascinating talking with you. And I really appreciate again your taking the time. I’ve been talking with Joan Petersilia, a law professor at Stanford University, the author of 11 books and an expert in the area of parole reform, prisoner reintegration and sentencing policy.
PETERSILIA: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
WOLF: I’m Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To learn more about the Center for Court Innovation, you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org.