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  April 26, 2015

New Reforms in California Will Reduce its Prison Population

Diana Zuniga, statewide organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), speaks with TRNN Correspondent Eddie Conway about the prisoners' rights movement in California.
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Diana Zuniga joined the Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) staff in November of 2012. She brings to the coalition years of community organizing and leadership skills honed in campaign work for the Latino Voters League, the Southwest Voter Registration Project and Drug Policy Alliance. Based in Los Angeles, Diana provides leadership and support to county-level struggles about realignment, and works to develop a deeper and broader base for CURB in Southern California. Diana has several close family members who are imprisoned. Diana holds a BA in Political Science and Chicano/a Studies with a minor in Psychology from Loyola Marymount University. Diana serves as an Advisory Committee Member for the Fund For Non-Violence Justice with Dignity.


EDDIE CONWAY, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News. I'm Eddie Conway, and this is our Light Behind Bars segment. And today we're discussing prison reform in California and significant victories that have been made toward reducing the prison population and providing rights to incarcerated women and men.

Our guest today is Diana Zuniga. Diana is the statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Based in Los Angeles, Diana provides leadership and support to county-level struggles about realignment, and works to develop a deeper and broader base for CURB in Southern California. Diana has several close family members who are in prison. Diana holds a bachelor's degree in political science and Chicano studies with a minor in psychology from Loyola Marymount University. Diana has served as advisory committee member for Fund for Nonviolence -- Justice With Dignity.

So let's start by talking about your organization. What is Californians United for a Responsible Budget?

DIANA ZUNIGA, STATEWIDE ORGANIZER, CALIFORNIANS UNITED FOR A RESPONSIBLE BUDGET: Yes. Californians United for a Responsible Budget is a broad-based coalition of over 70 organizations all working for three basic demands. One, to stop the amount of prisons and jails being built throughout the state of California. Two, to reduce the amount of people inside of prisons and jails. And three, to reinvest the dollars into community alternatives to incarceration, restoring the social safety net, education, and all the things that have been cut for so long in California's budget.

We do this in a number of ways. So our coalition really focuses in on monitoring the state corrections budget, monitoring the court order to reduce the prison population, and now we've also done a lot of organizing in counties throughout the state of California that are trying to build jails to answer the population reduction order.

CONWAY: Okay. The California prison system was sued for overcrowding. What is the significance of Coleman v. Brown lawsuit in California, and what is the origin of the lawsuit?

ZUNIGA: Yes. It is an extremely important lawsuit that really put a spotlight on what was happening in California prisons. In about 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding was resulting in cruel and unusual punishment, and was in violation of the 8th Amendment. The court found that because of the overcrowding, the primary cause was unconstitutional conditions for people that had medical and mental health conditions. This was actually before the lawsuit resulting in at least one person dying a week due to inadequate mental and medical healthcare in California prisons.

As a result California actually went under federal receivership, and is still currently under federal receivership. It is, it's been a while, but the U.S. Supreme Court also granted a two-year extension for California to actually meet this court order to reduce the prison population. California has to get to a mark of 137.5% of design capacity, which is what the Plata/Coleman case actually resulted in. Right now, California has actually reached a 137.2% of design capacity, so it's actually under the court order because it created very concrete parole and sentencing reform policies that then resulted in a dramatic reduction.

We still know that there are issues with medical and mental healthcare in the California prisons, and for that reason we're continuing to push to expand these programs even more substantially.

CONWAY: Well, let me get some clarification on this. Is this the lawsuit that was supposed to cause 20,000 people serving life sentences to be released, and Governor Brown I believe it was decided not to release them? Is this the same lawsuit?

ZUNIGA: So this is the lawsuit that resulted in a few different things. The first thing it resulted in was the building of a medical prison called the Stockton Medical Facility in order to answer the inadequate medical care that prisoners were receiving inside of the California prisons. It also resulted in Public Safety Realignment. Public Safety Realignment was actually the shifting of people from serving their time in state prison to now serving their time in county jail.

It resulted in the counties being in charge of two different populations now. The first was, after Public Safety Realignment was implemented in 2011, the first population was everybody that was convicted of a non-serious, nonviolent, non-sexual offense would now serve their time in county jail. The second population was any folks that were actually serving prison time for nonviolent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses would now be on county probation instead of state parole. So it really shifted a huge amount of people from the state, the state being responsible for them and now the county was responsible for them.

What it also resulted in last year was us being able to, along with really a push from the court order, implement three particular parole reform strategies through the budget. The first strategy was elder parole. The second strategy was increasing credit earning for nonviolent second-strikers. And the third was expanding medical parole.

So it resulted in a few different things. The building of additional facilities was one, the second was shifting people from the state level to the county level, and the third was actually very smart parole and sentencing reform strategies that we're now trying to work to expand.

CONWAY: Okay. But it's my understanding, and correct me if I'm wrong, that very few people were actually released as a result. So the success of the lawsuit, it seems that there's still some sort of pushback from the Governor. And obviously, putting people in the county jails and saying that's reducing the California prison population is one thing. But did--in terms of numbers, did people actually get released other than those people that were eligible for the smart parole reform?

ZUNIGA: Yeah. There weren't as many people as we would like that really got released. We basically have seen that there's been about--there's been about 115 people that have been released due to elder parole, and this is, there's been about 545 people that have been eligible for elder parole. So you can just kind of see kind of the gaps. That there aren't enough people that are actually being able to get these types of programs.

Additionally, with the credit-earning, that did reduce the amount of people by a pretty good amount. There was about 4,000 people that were impacted by the expansion of credits at the state prison level. And what also resulted in about 2,700 people getting released was the passage of Prop 47 this past year, which decreased some felonies to misdemeanors.

CONWAY: Okay. Okay. All right, how much does the state of California spend on incarcerating one person? And is there a cost difference between incarcerating someone younger and older?

ZUNIGA: Yes. So the state spends about $50,000-60,000 per year to incarcerate someone in a state prison. Additionally, you're right that costs actually go up as people age. As folks age inside of the state prison system medical costs go up, which actually increases the amount of money that has to be used to house somebody in a state prison.

So just for example, if it's $40,000-50,000 per year to have somebody in a state prison, additionally if that person is 50-59 years old it's about $8,000 additional on top of the $50,000-60,000 for their medical costs. For people age 60-69, it increases even further for medical costs to about $14,000. And for people 70-79, medical costs increase to about $23,000. So as you get older, the cost to house folks in prison actually increases due to all of the medical things that folks need.

CONWAY: Okay, so what is the Elderly Parole Program and how does the Senate Bill 224 change the existing law?

ZUNIGA: So the Elder Parole Program was again a result of the court order to reduce the prison population. What happened last year was this parole reform was actually moved through the budget. So it wasn't actually codified into law, so it's not a law, it's just an administrative program that the California Department of Corrections is implementing right now.

So what SB 224 does is actually codifies the Elder Parole Program so that this is a program that continues to exist beyond the court order. So our real push right now is that yes, this is a good program, it's getting some folks out. And now we have to actually make it into law so that it's a continuous program always. There's 15 other states that actually have this law in place and it has been very successful and very effective, and we are pushing California to do the same.

Right now the California Department of Corrections is implementing elder parole for folks that are 60 years and older and have served 25 years of their time. Our bill SB 224 actually expands this for folks that are 50 years and older and have served 15 years of their time. We thought that the 50-year-old mark was definitely a good step in the right direction because we know, and there are reports that say that people in prison actually age 10-15 years older physiologically. So if a person is 50 years old and they've been serving time in prison, physiologically their body has actually aged to 60 years old. So we thought actually expanding it to people that are 50 years old would be a lot more beneficial for the people inside of prison and would actually be a cost savings to the state as well.

CONWAY: Okay. I'm sorry to hear that too, about the aging process for the years spent in prison. What is the recidivism rate in California, and what are some of the initiatives that were passed recently to reduce the prison population in California?

ZUNIGA: The recidivism rate right now is about 65-70%. It's still pretty high. We also think that there hasn't been enough money actually going to community-based organizations to actually prevent people from recidivating. A lot of times when people are coming out of prison or jail, or any type of incarceration facility, what they need is housing. They need adequate food. They need services. And a lot of times there's not actually enough money that allows these folks to get any types of programs like this for an extended amount of time. After about five to six months a lot of times they're cut off of community-based programming because not enough money is going into those programs.

Last year what we saw was that there was about $40 million that was approved for the California Department of Corrections to increase the amount of programs that they had inside of prison. So that would include substance abuse, mental health programs, anger management. The list could go on. The community actually only got $8 million from last year's budget to reduce recidivism. So you can just kind of see the amount of money that continues to be fueled into programs inside the prisons, which we know are needed, versus the amount of money that's actually going into community-based organizations to provide the services when folks are coming home.

So that's another part of the advocacy that we do, is we really try to push for more money to go into community-based organizations so that when people are returning home they actually have the resources that they could, that they need to prevent recidivism. Additionally, with Prop 47 there will be an amount of money that will be saved due to this change in, this voter initiative. The money that is saved will not be divided out to community-based organizations or the counties until next year. And some of this money is supposed to support programs that would help people that have substance abuse or mental health conditions.

CONWAY: Diana, thank you for joining me, and thank you for participating in this segment of the Light Behind Bars.

ZUNIGA: Definitely.

CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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