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Phil Matier: 3-Strikes Law And California’s Costly Prison System

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Inmates at Chino State Prison walk the hallway on December 10, 2010 in Chino, California. The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments to appeal a federal court's ruling last year that the California state prison system would have to release 40,000 prisoners to cope with overcrowding so severe that it violated their human rights. More than 144,000 inmates are currently incarcerated in prisons that were designed to hold about 80,000. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Inmates at Chino State Prison walk the hallway. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Phil-Matier_BIO-HEAD Phil Matier
Whether it's politics, personalities or analysis Phil Matier is one ...
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SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – Supporters of a California ballot measure that softened the nation’s toughest three-strikes law say some 1,000 prisoners have had their life terms significantly reduced and are out of prison.

A new report released by supporters of Prop 36 states that about 2 percent of those released have since been charged with new crimes. That compares with a 16 percent recidivism rate for all California inmates released from prison, according to the report by Stanford’s Three Strikes Project and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

That’s good news. That’s what the voters were looking for and it looks like they got it but many of these three-strikers tend to be a little older than a lot of the other people that are going through the revolving door. They have to get three strikes to get to that point and they are probably more likely to give up on that life and change their ways.

Unfortunately, the state is still swamped with billions of dollars in its correctional budget that still doesn’t seem to work and a federal judge has said that despite the spending, the state’s prisons are still overcrowded. The federal court has said that California has 10,000 inmates more than it should but Gov. Brown said he’s already released 40,000 and doesn’t want to let more go—at least not in the short term.

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg wants to have more community-based alternatives and to allocate money there in order to keep people out of jail to reduce overcrowding. It’s the classic debate that is happening in Sacramento right now.

But the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the prison system itself; it’s become an incredibly complex and expensive load on California taxpayers. Everybody is trying to figure out how to reduce costs by either keeping people out of jail or releasing them earlier, but the fact remains that California spends more money locking up its own people than any other state.

One reason that no one in Sacramento wanted to have a special session on prison overcrowding is because the question of who is getting what out of the prison deal will present itself. Is it all really just a matter of public safety?

California prison guards, for example, in 1980 used to be paid about $21,000 a year but they now average about $73,000. Their union is one of the biggest political forces in the state on both Democratic and Republicans sides.

So the question is: how can the state limit what it already has while keeping it all still going?

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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