Prison miscalculations mean jail time, higher incarceration costs

LOS ANGELES ( – The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is working overtime to recalculate prison sentences after a major labor union filed a lawsuit charging the department miscalculated the release dates for 33,000 inmates.

Prison activists and state officials say Corrections Department failures result in loss of freedom and chances of advancement for inmates, extended costs to taxpayers, prolonged threats to public safety because of overcrowding and the overly burdened case workers and other employees, whom the suit represents.


The suit was filed in part to help to protect caseworkers and analysts responsible for tracking inmate sentencing and releases, said Mark Bautista, an account clerk and SEIU Local 1000 vice president for organizing/representation. Experienced workers have left the department and three individuals have faced potential job loss because an inmate was released early, he said. Mr. Bautista blames chronic Corrections Dept. understaffing throughout caseworker systems for the problem.

“At a time when the state budget is $10 billion in the hole, when the state is spending tens of millions to ship inmates out of state, and billions more on building new prisons, failure to release as many 33,000 inmates who have fulfilled their legal obligation to society is intolerable,” he said. The suit was filed in December.

SEIU charged the Corrections Dept. violated court mandates modifying the calculations of release dates for serious violent and non-violent offenses with regard to early release credits earned. Seth Unger, Corrections Dept. spokesman, insisted there were no miscalculations or violations. The department, he said, is voluntarily applying rulings that the courts meted out in three individual cases regarding early release credits earned to the inmate population it thinks could be affected by them.

According to Mr. Unger, inmates serving time for serious violent offenses must serve 85 percent of their time and non-serious, non-violent offenders must serve 50 percent of their sentences. The other 50 percent can be reduced based on good time credits. Out of the state’s 173,000 inmates, 33,000 are serving time for both classifications and these cases will be recalculated.

“We had about 20 cases reviewed from most of our institutions and from our preliminary analysis we found that in the next year if all 33,000 cases were to be analyzed, possibly 600 could be saved or beds could be open in the next year,” Mr. Unger said. In most cases, he added, analysts found that a few days, weeks or months would be shaved off the end of already long sentences based on the recalculations.

The Corrections Dept. has authorized overtime for caseworkers to recalculate sentences and is prioritizing cases, which are closest to release dates. Reconciliation for affected inmates could also mean taking the extra time inmates may have served off of their parole period, Mr. Unger told The Final Call.

Time stolen from families

“A response like that from the Department of Corrections means that individual actually can’t come face to face with what the impact of incarceration is on an individual and an individual’s family. Because if they can essentially blow this off like a technicality, there’s no appreciation of what it actually means to be in a cage,” said Lois Ahrens, director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project. The Project works to create education workshops and materials, which explore both the immediate and long-term costs of incarceration on the individual, families, communities and the nation.

Corrections officials may argue 600 inmates or beds pale in comparison to 33,000, but the toll is much higher when inmates’ mothers, spouses, loved ones or children are factored in, especially when inmates are transferred because of overcrowding, according to advocates. Minimizing the issue remains easy for corrections officials as long as they talk about 600 beds and not 600 human beings, Ms. Ahrens said.

She challenged the Corrections Dept. to consider all costs of unjust extended prison sentences. “What would be the cost of having the parent separated from the child? This could place parents in jeopardy of losing custody of their children and that would be an unbelievable cost. They could try to put a dollar amount on the issue, but really what about the psychological and emotional community cost of having a family torn apart for more days than necessary or the cost of somebody not being able to go to their mother’s funeral?” she asked.

Extra time costs state millions

According to SEIU, it costs California taxpayers an average of $235 million to house 33,000 inmates for an average of 60 days beyond their legal term. Unneeded financial stress added to the state’s $7.3 billion tab for new construction to house 16,000 prisoners, and $115 million per year to house overflow prisoners out of state, said the union. Timely releases could help alleviate the problems, SEIU said.

According to Mr. Bautista, despite repeated requests for training, more staffing and supplies–such as computers and programming–for more increased efficiency in inmate sentence tracking, little has been done. Sentences are computed by hand using calculators and leaving too much room for error, he said.

Corrective action for the 14,000 non-custody workers SEIU represents, including correctional case records analysts, nurses, teachers, food service workers, vocational instructors, and other rehabilitative and support staff, means fewer threat of termination, reductions in pay and demotions in positions. “They talk about double capacity at prisons, but what the public has to understand is that this has a rippling impact because they need more people to cook food, more medical and clerical staff and more resources,” Mr. Bautista said.

California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber believes that the problem is a result of oversight in a mushrooming criminal justice system that is grossly disorganized and lax in basic information systems. During a late December visit to Salinas Valley State Prison, the state legislator found primarily paper-based files, with less than 10 percent of files digitized. “Some of the stacks of paper are two and three feet tall for one inmate. Our computerized situation is so bad that we have lost inmates in the system, and had people riding around on buses, and we didn’t know where they were or prison where they were at. It’s truly a mess,” she said.

The lawmaker authored Senate Bill AB160 for sentencing reform in hopes of instituting a non-partisan, non-political sentencing commission of experts to review California’s sentencing and criminal laws. “This is the first year that spending on the prisons is higher than spending on higher education in California. I think that’s a real landmark that we have to pay attention to,” she added.

The bill cleared the State Assembly and she is optimistic that it will pass in the Senate and be approved by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Rose Braz, of Critical Resistance, which works to build an international movement to end the prison industrial complex, argues the fundamental problem is that California imprisons too many people as a supposed answer to social, political and economic problems. “This leads to spending billions of dollars on a system that is not producing more public safety, but is incarcerating Black and Brown people, largely men, under the guise of community safety,” she said.

Changing parole policies to de-incarcerate and decriminalize offenses are simple ways to provide relief to prisoners, the system and society, said Ms. Braz.