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New poll: Californians seeking to spend less on prisons

The California Institution for Men prison fence is seen in Chino, California.
The California Institution for Men prison fence is seen in Chino, California.
Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images

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Worried about the economy, Californians do not want to spend more money on prisons even though crime rates across the state have been dropping to historically low levels, a new poll from the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California shows. Are our priorities shifting?

The poll of 1,507 registered California voters released Thursday reveals a shift in attitudes about tough sentencing rules in the face of an expensive prison system that has played a part in the state’s perpetual budget deficits.

More than 60 percent of respondents, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and “decline to state” voters, said they support reducing life sentences for "third strike" offenders convicted of property crimes. Nearly 70 percent said they favor early release of some low-level offenders whose crimes did not involve violence. And about 80 percent said they approve keeping nonviolent offenders in county jails rather that state prisons.

Thursday's Patt Morrison show, guest hosted by Frank Stoltze, asked guests and listeners: Is a safer California worth the high costs of incarceration, or is it time to reconsider our public safety priorities in the wake of a lousy economy?

Guest Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation thought poll takers may have misunderstood the issues. "[The poll] does show a genuine shift in opinion, but part of that is the way the poll is phrased" he said, citing the example, "'Low-level' is a very benign sounding term."

Scheidegger suggested that poll takers underestimated criminals convicted under California's "three strikes and you're out" law. The law, which Californians passed overwhelmingly in 1994, imposes life sentences on previous violent offenders who commit a third crime--violent or otherwise. But Scheidegger said that since the early days of the law, fewer people are being incarcerated for "low-level" offenses like shoplifting.

"It's not easy to get into state prison in California," he said.

Guest Joe Domanick of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John J. College of Criminal Justice, disagreed. He felt that the poll results reflect Californians' realization that the third strike law has crowded state prisons with people convicted of minor offenses.

"Over 350 three strike cases have been for shoplifting and only 16 of those cases have been adjudicated," Domanick said.

Jane, a public defender in Los Angeles called in to add, "I personally have a client doing 25-to-life for petty theft…the time and energy and money that is spent for washing up these people is what is bankrupting us."

Her statement reflected the feelings of the majority of poll takers: Incarcerating Californians for petty crimes costs too much in the midst of an already strained economy.

With economic troubles up and crime rates down, "Crime just isn't on peoples' radars like it was in 1994 when three strikes passed," explained Domanick.

But would spending less money on incarceration lead to an increase in crime? Twenty to 25 percent of the reason for California's shrinking crime rates in recent years may be attributed to the third strike law, according to Domanick.

Even so, he said, "New York state has had an even more dramatic drop in crime than California, and they don't have a three strikes law."

Some feel crime rates could be kept low and money could be saved on incarceration if California spent more on preventing crime in the first place. One reason that offenders end up facing multiple strikes may just be the prison system's inability to rehabilitate inmates, listener Bill called to point out.

"[Prisons] are not giving [inmates] the skills needed to become productive members of society," he said, adding that California's prisons are "just massive storage."

Lack of funding and overcrowding has become so serious that Domanick explained prisons are literally running out of physical space for inmate rehabilitation programs. "Prisons are so overcrowded that there's nowhere to run the programs. Every square inch in the prisons is used for housing prisoners."

The state is already working to comply with U.S. Supreme court-ordered cuts to the prison population to reduce overcrowding and lower the budget, but Scheidegger said easing sentences and releasing prisoners may not be possible.

"We already have reduced the number of people in prison for drug offenses. There isn't as much left to do as far as releasing people that are not threat as is commonly believed," he said.

In addition to inmate overcrowding, the high salary of prison guards may be partly to blame for rising prison expenses and program cutbacks.

According to Scheidegger, "prison guards' cost is a big part of the problem. California pays twice as much as the national average to keep people incarcerated."

Paying double the national average for prisons seems no longer to be a popular choice for many Californians. According to this poll, come next election time, voters may ask policymakers to start being tough on spending rather than tough on crime.

Compiled by Katherine Davis. AP contributed to this story.


Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the Center on the Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and Senior Fellow in Criminal Justice at USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism

Kent Scheidegger, Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation