Capitol Alert

Fewer released felons returning to California prisons

In this Sept. 30, 2014, photo, inmates laugh while watching inmate actors perform during an Actors' Gang Prison Project workshop, an outreach program led by actor Tim Robbins, at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Calif. The nonprofit acting program is expanding thanks to its slice of a $2.5 million arts pilot project from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
In this Sept. 30, 2014, photo, inmates laugh while watching inmate actors perform during an Actors' Gang Prison Project workshop, an outreach program led by actor Tim Robbins, at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Calif. The nonprofit acting program is expanding thanks to its slice of a $2.5 million arts pilot project from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. AP

Fewer felons released from state prison are returning because of committing new crimes or having their paroles revoked, a new report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says.

However, data buried in the voluminous report indicate that those released from prison are being arrested and convicted of new crimes at about the same rates as before the state began drawing down its prison population to comply with a federal court order aimed at reducing overcrowding.

The lower rate of returns, therefore, is almost entirely because fewer felons are having their paroles revoked and more are being funneled into local jails after conviction of new crimes, due to policies adopted in response to the order to reduce prison crowding.

The CDCR report adds new information to an ongoing political debate over the effects of “realignment,” the 2011 program to reduce prison inmates by shifting felons deemed to be non-dangerous to local jails and probation programs.

Critics say the policy has overcrowded local jails with felons, leaving little space for lesser offenders, who are then released to commit new crimes. The most recent data collected by the Board of State and Community Corrections indicate that nearly 90 percent of local jail inmates are now felons.

They also contend that softening up on parole revocations has left more felons on the street to commit new crimes.

The new CDCR report tracks released felons for three years to determine a “return-to-prison” rate. Of the 104,981 men and women who left prison during the 2009-10 fiscal year, it says, 54.3 percent were returned to prison within three years, 6.7 percentage points lower than those released in the previous year, 2008-09.

The decline, however, has been underway since the 2005-06 “cohort,” which had a return-to-prison rate of 67.5 percent.

During the entire survey period, which began with those released in 2002-03, arrest rates for released felons have remained very stable at about 75 percent, and the same is true of conviction rates for new crimes, about 50 percent.

Murderers are the least likely to return to prison after release while sex offenders and thieves are most likely. Younger inmates are also more likely to land behind bars again while older ones are less likely. And men have far higher recidivism rates than women.

The report also indicates that felons who undergo drug counseling and other rehabilitative programs are less likely to return to prison that those who are released without such preparation.

The CDCR’s return-to-prison methodology is different from the primary recidivism definition adopted, after much controversy, by the Board of State and Community Corrections last year.

To be counted as a recidivist under its tighter definition, a released felon would have to have been convicted of a new felony or misdemeanor during the three years following release. The board does sanction the CDCR method as an alternative way of measuring recidivism, however, and the department continues to use it.

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