For years, we have been hearing political candidates campaigning on the idea that they will be tough on crime.  Crime has become the staple media story that holds its audience hostage; as such, political candidates often appeal to the emotions of the public to gather votes and win an election.  Unfortunately, the tough on crime approach has cost taxpayers across this country billions of dollars.

In 2008-09, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) spent $48,536 to incarcerate one inmate for a year.  This was up $19,500 since 2001 and was largely due to increased security costs and healthcare costs.  (See here and here)  In the 2009-10 and 2010-11 fiscal years, CDCR spent $44,688 and $45,006, respectively.  (See here and here, respectively.)

In 2011, Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 109 (“AB 109”) into law to address prison overcrowding and the excessive expenditures that come with it.  Since then, significant changes have taken place to address these issues.  Included in AB 109 was a provision that allowed for the review of “Medical Parole” cases.  (See Pages 6-7, here.)  From the signing of the bill in April 2011 until December 2011, 30 cases were screened for Medical Parole and 27 inmates were granted release.  Most likely, these inmates were costing the state well above the average since they required additional, above average medical care.  Using the per capita annual incarceration expense, this program saved the state $1.2 million.

Although it is easy to agree with being tough on crime, we should always acknowledge that we don’t have unlimited resources, and we need to be smart on crime too. It is time for California to lead the nation once again, only this time by instituting an “Innocence Parole” review so we can change the discussion from tough on crime to smart on crime.

This means, at the very least, spending tax dollars on those who we know committed the crime – and freeing those who are innocent.  The California Innocence Project (“CIP”) has identified 16 cases in which we have strong evidence of innocence, yet the inmate remains incarcerated.  In some of the cases, a judge has already made a determination of innocence and overturned the conviction – yet the inmate remains incarcerated at the cost of the taxpayer.  If these inmates were to be released, it would save the state $720,000, annually.

By: Michael Semanchik, Attorney, California Innocence Project