January 6, 2008
Effective review of politics and prison populations
Writing in the Los Angeles imes, Joe Domanick has this effective op-ed headlined "Prisoners of panic: Media hype and political quick fixes have swelled our inmate population." Here are excerpts:
How much more folly, absurdity, fiscal irresponsibility and human tragedy will we endure before we stop tolerating the political pandering that has dictated our criminal justice law and policy over the last two decades?
The pattern has become all too clear. Our politicians, fearful of being labeled "soft on crime," react to sensationalistic coverage of a crime with knee-jerk, quick-fix answers. Only years later do the mistakes, false assumptions and unexpected consequences begin to emerge, and then the criminal justice system is forced to deal with the mess created by the bad lawmaking....
Today, Californians are still paying the price for [its severe three-strikes laws] and other like-minded laws, not just in the ruined and wasted lives of people sentenced under these laws, but in other ways. There are now tens of thousands of inmates in California convicted of nonviolent crimes and serving out long second- and third-strike sentences, as well as thousands more behind bars because minor crimes were turned into felonies with mandatory minimum sentences.
All these laws have contributed to severe overcrowding in the state's prisons -- as high as 200% of capacity -- that has produced conditions of such "extreme peril" for prisoners and guards that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was forced to declare a systemwide state of emergency in 2006.... A large part of the problem is that the prison population is aging because inmates are serving the longer sentences approved by lawmakers, and with aging comes more medical problems....
Faced with the huge budget deficit and judicial threats to cap the state's prison population, Schwarzenegger's office has been floating the idea of early release for about 22,000 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes. That 13% cut in prisoners, however, would require legislative approval, something that is by no means certain. The story of crime and punishment in California -- and the country -- since the 1980s, after all, has been quick-fix answers fueled by media hype. Let's hope that such proposals as releasing nonviolent inmates receive serious attention rather than panicky headlines that lead to bad criminal justice laws.