In 2011, the state of California was dealing hugely overpopulated prisons.
To try and solve the problem, legislators signed a new law into effect: county judges could not send felons back to prison for parole violations. Instead, they must send them to county jails.
At a glimpse, the law looks like a sound solution to the problem of overcrowding. But in reality, the legislation is causing far-reaching and dangerous unintended consequences.
Since parole violators are now being sent to county jails, the county jails are overcrowded too. Because of this, jails can usually only afford to keep parole violators in jail for one or two nights before releasing them in order to make room for new violators. As a result, convicted felons are breaking their parole terms without regard because they know they won’t be spending any significant time in jail.
"When parolees get arrested, they get released the next day," said Susan Kane, a Department of Corrections supervising agent in Stockton, California. "So it doesn't matter how bad they are or what's happened. If there are no fresh criminal charges, they are released the next day back into the community."
Among the parole violators walking free in California are murderers and sex offenders.
"I can honestly say, we do our job, we do the very best job we can, but we can't protect the community with this," Kane said. "We can't protect them from these sex offenders because they get out of jail the next day."
With no threat of punishment, Kane says offenders often taunt corrections officers when they are brought into jail for the night.
Kane recalled one convicted child molester who told her “‘You can do whatever you want to me, I'm only going to be in jail one night, and when I get out, I'm gonna do what I want to make your life miserable.'”
Another sex offender, Jack Turner, was described by his county court as having an “extensive history of sexual violence.” Yet Turner walks free despite violating his parole conditions several times a month.
“Last week, this week, last week, the week before that, probably the week before that, so they (know) me real well," Turner said.
With sex offenders violating parole while prisons are too packed to punish them, California has become a prime example of why America desperately needs to reform its drug policies. The California prison system currently houses almost 9,000 inmates for simple possession of a controlled substance. Almost 1,500 of these inmates are imprisoned for marijuana-specific charges. If the state chose to fine petty drug offenders rather than imprison them, thousands of prison cells would become available for the sex offenders and murderers violating their parole terms.
I’d rather have a pothead walking down my street than a rapist any day.