Back in January, the state's Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) laid out a series of options for reducing California's bloated prisons-and-parole budget. In terms of savings, they individually were worth anywhere from tens of millions of dollars to several hundred million dollars. Then, as part of his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to cut $400 million from its budget. In his revised budget proposal last week, the governor said that he might have to commute the sentences of the roughly 19,000 undocumented immigrants in the state's prisons and change the sentences of an unspecified number of prisoners convicted of low-level offenses from felony to misdemeanor (there are 26,000 such convicts in prison). Those measures, the governor says, would save $282 million during the next year.
It's too bad it took “fiscal Armageddon,” as our governor likes to call our present situation, to get serious about prison reform, but we're glad it's finally happened.
According to the LAO, between 1987 and 2007, prison costs shot skyward much faster than population growth, and the reason was far more zealous prosecution and sentencing of offenders. This, despite a reduction in both the overall crime rate and the violent crime rate. Recent court-mandated improvements to inmate medical care have increased, and will continue to increase, costs even more.
Meanwhile, there's very little actual correction and rehabilitation going on in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The state recidivism rate, reportedly, is 70 percent—although 81 percent of parole violators are sent back because of technicalities (missed a meeting, failed a drug test) or because they committed a misdemeanor crime. In response to a prison-guards union spokesperson's comment that corrections layoffs would result in a decrease in rehab programs, a very well-informed inmate blogger for the San Francisco Bay Guardian countered: “WHAT FUCKING PROGRAMS?”
The state's prison system has been a colossal waste of taxpayer money, and few lawmakers (other than Schwarzenegger) have been brave enough to talk about it—they're terrified of upsetting the powerful prison-guards union, which has earned a reputation for being able to single-handedly end political careers by flooding districts with “soft on crime” advertising at election time. During the past 20 or so years, the easiest thing for politicians to do has been to appease the union and curry voter favor by promising to lock up as many criminals as possible for as long as possible (see: Three Strikes and You're Out) and oppose touchy-feely rehabilitation measures aimed at helping inmates avoid returning to prison. Not only have prison costs risen, we've lost out on any sales, property or income tax revenue we might have reaped from those folks on whom we've given up.
What's more, in spite of Schwarzenegger's right-thinking about reducing the prison population, he's also proposing to eliminate funding for the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act (2000's Prop. 36), which diverts first- and second-time drug offenders into treatment rather than incarceration. That's an incredibly stupid and backward idea—the $108 million it would save can be made up by implementing more of the LAO's suggestions, such as:
• Making certain offenses ineligible for prison, increasing the dollar-value sentencing threshold for property crimes and diverting more offenders to community-based sanction and treatment programs.
• Reducing sentences for some crimes, releasing some prisoners early and increasing credit programs for work and good behavior.
• Reducing time for parole violators and making some parole violations ineligible for a return to prison.
Unfortunately, nothing is simple, and many of these measures would have consequences, such as a possible increase in offenders entering county jails and the need for increased funding for community treatment and alternative-sentencing programs—the latter being particularly problematic in San Diego County, where the jails are at an untenable 109-percent capacity.
Therefore, it's clear that the era of costly and socially regressive tough-on-crime measures must end, and a new era of investing in initiatives that keep people out of trouble in the first place—early childhood education, drug and mental-health treatment, inner-city economic development, parenting help, a sturdy social safety net—must begin.Fully 10 percent of California's general fund budget is spent keeping people behind bars—up from 5 percent 20 years ago. If that's not an indicator of a failed society, we don't know what is.