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Assembly Republican Leader Michael Villines is traveling the state to bring awareness to California's prison crisis. PT talks to him about what can be done.

PT: You've been traveling throughout the state recently talking about our prison crisis. Many people argue that the number of people we have behind bars indicates that our criminal justice system is imbalanced. Would you agree?

Villines: In general, I think Californians want to make sure that people who are sent to prison are going to stay there for the term they were sentenced to. So, yes, they want criminals to pay a penalty, but they also want people who have paid their penalty to stay out of the joint once they've been released.

We need a system that is able to incarcerate and hold people—and the most critical issue in California right now is prison space—but as an overall legislature we seem to just be putting our head in the sand and hoping it will all work out. We need to build more bed space for the bad people in prison; there's no doubt about it. But when they're in prison, we need to make sure that we have programs that are legitimate, warranted and successful to give people hope. People need to have hope that when they get out there will be a job and support.

PT: What does that mean with respect to policy?

Villines: Well, we used to have programs—and this is the part that we've neglected—in which faith-based and non-profrit organizations reached into our prisons and aggressively tried to help those who are about to return to the community. We would teach skills in prison that actually related to the outside world so they would have a job when they got out.

We gave inmates the opportunity to say, "I've got my GED, I've got a job skill, I've connected to a church on the outside that will provide me with community support," and that allowed them to take responsibility for themselves. Then the parole board would look at that and say, "OK, this person has a plan for success." We need to recreate that environment in our prisons.

If someone chooses to rehabilitate, we should give them the tools to do it. Those that don't, we should put them in prison and let them sit there as long as they feel like they want to sit there.

PT: Practically speaking, how do you go about creating a new environment in our prisons?

Villines: We need to have a prison industry authority that gives job skills to inmates that will make sense on the outside as well. Right now it's a failed system. We did an audit and 30-40%
of the people under the prison industry authority learning a skill—which isn't, incidentally, relatable to the outside—are lifers. They're not getting out! Why would we do that as a policy?

PT: Could some of the problem come from the number of people we're sending to prison?

Villines: Bad people need to go away and stay there. If a jury of your peers decides that you need to go to prison, you're going to have to do that. But on the inside, we need to create hope for that inmate that if they get out, they'll be able to reintegrate successfully into society. If we can do that, then we won't have a recidivism rate that is an embarrassment to the nation.

The idea that we would just do an early release to clear up prison space is just silly. It's not going to work and frankly, it jeopardizes Californians. Even the idea to release "low-level" offenders early is silly. Everyone that is sent to prison by a jury of their peers has a series of things they've done to merit it. Inside the prison they should have rehab and counseling programs so they aren't released with $200, a drug addiction and no job.

PT: Recidivism wasn't always this bad though. What's different now?

Villines: I've talked to corrections officials across the state and all of them have said one thing consistently: "In the past we were well connected to communities and we aren't anymore." For some reason, that has fallen off and I don't know whose fault it is. But faith-based groups, churches and nonprofits should be encouraged to help build that bridge, and we should do everything we can to help them.

PT: Is there anything the legislature can do to facilitate the connection between these groups and the people in our prisons?

Villines: Yes, I think so. This is going to sound political, but the first thing we can do is fix the bed space. Right now we have prisoners filling the gymnasiums and classrooms that we need to help rehabilitate these people. Once we address the overcrowding issue we'll be in a better position.

To begin with—once we've addressed overcrowding—we need to make it easier for these nonprofit groups to get into the system and connect with the inmates. Right now it's very difficult for a church or nonprofit of any kind to get into the prison.

PT: Rehabilitation is obviously important, but even if an offender is rehabilitated, they still have to contend with the stigma of being an ex-felon once they're out. Is there any other way of dealing with non-violent or drug offenders to help address this issue before it happens?

Villines: That's a difficult question, but my instinct is to say "no." I've talked to enough people in the correction system, as well as police officers and inmates themselves. The one consistent theme I find is that offenders who are in prison for "low-level" offenses are only there because that was the latest crime they were caught for. It's usually an escalating pattern of crime, or they had a serious crime in their past and then they got caught on a drug offense. So, I don't subscribe to the notion that some crimes deserve different characterization so they don't have the same stigma as a felon.

PT: Would you say that we have a problem with overgeneralization in our criminal justice system? Do we need to be exercising more discretion when it comes to how we treat different crimes?

Villines: We're pretty aggressive about defining crime and putting people away for a set sentence. We've had to do a lot by initiative because the legislature has failed to lead on the issue on making people pay for crimes they've committed. So, when the legislature looks soft on crime, people go to the ballot box. We've seen that with Jessica's Law, Three Strikes and 10/20/Life. You will continue to see very prescriptive sentencing guidelines from Californians because the legislature fails to do its job.

PT: That raises another important question though: do shifts in public sentiment have undue influence over criminal justice policies? The general public rarely has the same knowledge of what works and what doesn't, let alone what policies are the best value.

Villines: I was speaking to a judge from my home district the other day about the sentencing commission. He said that before Three Strikes was passed he knew that something was going to happen by virtue of the liberal sentencing that was going on and the legislature's failure to deal with it.

The bottom line is this: since Three Strikes came into effect, California's murder rate was cut in half. That means thousands are living and have not been scarred by violent crime or killed. This was prevented by a policy that could have been passed in the legislature but was killed five years in a row.

We need to be tough on crime, but we also need to provide an avenue for hope so that if you choose to reform yourself in prison, you can get your education, develop a skill and connect to a faith-based organization or a nonprofit. That's the model that will work.

Some say that we should look at low-level offenders differently, but we can't because that's just the latest crime they've committed. Or the idea that people with drug problems aren't at fault and we should work with them—well, they made that choice. The fact that someone broke into an empty house looking for drug money and was arrested for burglary might mean they weren't arrested for rape or murder because no one happened to be there.

PT: Assemblyman, thank you for your time.

Michael Villines represents California's 29th assembly district. He is the Assembly Republican Leader.