The U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered the state of California to address its prison overcrowding problem. As a quick fix nearly 30,000 low-level (nonviolent) offenders will be released in the next few months–nearly 12,000 in Los Angeles County–so the county has a few perplexing dilemmas:

  • 1) Where are all these parolees going to live? Los Angeles’ “nimby” persona (not in my backyard) means the poorer and more impoverished areas of the city are going to receive a disproportionate number;
  • 2) With unemployment already between 24 and 40 percent, depending on whose numbers you cite, where are they going to work?

Ex-offender unemployment rates are nearly seven times the national rate of 9.2 percent, with only one in four being able to find permanent work.

Parolees and probationers must find work in a relatively short time (usually 30 days, although many aren’t released until they can prove they have work), but the biggest dilemma Los Angeles County has is who will supervise these newly released ex-offenders. The Los Angeles County Probation Department is under massive scrutiny because of its failure to properly supervise ex-offenders. So, instead of overhauling the department, the county is considering another solution: allowing the sheriff’s department to supervise parolees. The state legislature thinks it’s a good idea because they can save some money in the state’s cash-strapped budget.

Did the hair just stand up on your neck like it did mine when I first heard this? It should’ve. This is unprecedented, and the first step to us being a police state. It sounds like a common sense solution, but it’s full of constitutional conflicts.

If done, Los Angeles would be the first county in the nation to do it. No other county in California, and no other county in the nation has done it or is doing it. There’s a reason for the wall between law enforcement, the courts and the justice department. The very people who sent many of these parolees away, some under very suspicious, even false circumstances, would be asked to supervise their release and rehabilitation.

I can imagine sitting across the desk from the officer who arrested me (or his buddy) and having a great deal of confidence that the system that may have compromised me once is poised to do it again.

Judges, prosecutors and law-enforcement officers already have a cozy, near incestuous relationship. One arrests, the other is the tryer of facts that determine guilt, the last is the determiner of penalty. Once law enforcement and criminal justice are out of the picture, the state (or federal) prison systems hold you until you have “paid your debt.” Federal or state probation officers are supposed to evaluate prisons without bias on their re-entry and re-assimilation into society. I’m not convinced law enforcement could be that objective.

Now California didn’t get into this predicament overnight. The state made a concentrated effort to divest in education and invest in prisons, as its primary measure of social control. Don’t educate them. Lock ’em up and re-lock ’em up, when they get out. In 2006, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned that the state’s prison system was in crisis, as state recidivism was an alarming 70 percent, meaning nearly three out of four inmates who were released, returned to prison. That is (still) the highest in the nation. If the U.S. is a “prison nation” with more than 2 million inmates, California is its “capitol state.”

California is the nation’s largest jailer, with nearly 180,000 prisoners in its corrections system, a system that only has some 80,000-plus beds. The prison-industrial-complex thrives in California, having built 22 new prisons since 1985 but only one state university. The prison officer’s union has become one of the most powerful in the state, and employees at California prisons are among the best compensated in the nation.

My point is that there was plenty of incentive to overcrowd, even when California didn’t have the money to operate all the prisons it built. Nearly 60 percent of California inmates are in prison for non serious offenses, and its death row inmates have the longest appeal process in the nation (nearly 23 years on average).

The Texas death-row appeal process is less than three years. California’s statewide prison budget is larger than its education budget. Arnold mentioned this on his way out the door, but did little to reverse the trend.

He was going to let inmates out of prison, and he wasn’t going against the prison guard lobby. So the courts had to do what the state refused to do … prisoners do have some rights, as few as they are.

But now we are forced into a situation whereby the poor and disenfranchised are poised to be victimized again. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is a compassionate, reasonable man who has proven that he can barely make a dent in the abusive culture of his department. And he won’t be there forever … more’s the reason not to do it. I believe both prisoners and the citizens would have a constitutional challenge, if the Board of Supervisors carry this out. It violates both the rights of the accused and the rights of society.

Los Angeles County’s best option is to overhaul the probation department. Put it in receivership like they did the health department and Children and Family Services. But don’t give it to the sheriff’s department. Supervision of ex-felons will then become just another blurred line of abused authority.

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, “Real Eyez: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture.” He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.

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