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February 24, 2006

The challenging politics of reform

Apparently the possible unconstitutionality of the California sentencing system (background here and here) is the least of that state's criminal justice problems.  The Los Angeles Times yesterday ran this interesting editorial which spotlights other problems with California justice and also the challenging politics that can impede sound reforms.  Here is a snippet:

State prisons are already overflowing, with twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold...  Part of the reason for the huge and growing jail population is a series of get-tough-on-crime laws passed since the 1980s.  But another is the gross inadequacy of rehabilitation programs at state prisons, including wrongheaded approaches to parole violators, youth offenders and women.

California has the second-highest recidivism rate in the United States.  Only 21% of the state's parolees successfully complete their term of supervision, according to the U.S. Department of Justice....

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed many sensible reforms to reduce recidivism and lower the prison population, only to be thwarted at every turn by the politically powerful state prison guards union — which opposes anything that could jeopardize jobs for its members.  In 2004, pressure from the union was a factor in the state's decision to close 300 vocational education programs in the prisons — programs that gave inmates badly needed job skills. Last year, in a move also backed by the guards, the state ended a program that sent nonviolent parole violators to community-based rehabilitation centers or to home detention....

Schwarzenegger hasn't given up trying, partially because he's bound by court orders and settlement agreements to improve prison conditions. He recently released plans to better house and rehabilitate youth offenders, whose experience with the state correctional system too often helps mold them into career criminals, and to move nonviolent female inmates to private community centers....  Schwarzenegger needs to find the backbone to support these reforms with what political capital he has left.

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February 24, 2006 at 12:22 PM | Permalink


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If a private business had a product return rate of 79% it would soon go bankrupt. The California prison system, with such a recidivism rate, does not go bankrupt because it is publicly funded and there is little accountability. Since taxpayers have almost no idea about the real costs of a failed system they have no voice in the debate over prison reform. Thus we find a governor struggling with a guards union, instead of a governor with huge public support making needed changes happen. Unless and until the general public is informed of the social and economic costs of a failed corrections system we will all be sentenced to a lifetime of more of the same problems....an unending stream of new crime victims, countless ruined lives, and billions of taxpayer dollars wasted. Successful reform of such an entrenched system rarely comes from within or above. Surely it is time for would be reformers to devise a strategy for change that actually has potential for implementation. Criticism is easy....constructive proposals more difficult and necessary.
( I am a former probation officer with an interest in system change)

Posted by: Wolf Sittler | Feb 25, 2006 7:04:14 AM


Posted by: CON | Dec 19, 2006 10:47:13 PM

I am doing a report for my State and Local Government class on prison reform. It is pretty appalling to see the statistics of the overcrowded system. I understand that punishment has to be handed out for offenders. However, in many cases rehabilitation is necessary. Therefore, when these offenders come out of incarceration they will be ready for normal life again and perhaps not commit the same crime. Maybe, I am a naive college student, but there is a lot of money out there and it does not seem to be put to proper use. Another important aspect of reform is educating the prison guards. Too much authority is given to guards who seem to mishandle the power in their hands. Reform is needed I just hope others feel the same way I do.

Posted by: Maimuna | Feb 26, 2007 1:37:03 PM

Hi I am a student at the University of Southern California and I am writing a paper on governor Schwarzenegger’s prison reform proposal. I understand that you are in favor of reform, but are there any parts of the proposal you do not agree with or alternatives that you support?

Posted by: amber | Apr 3, 2007 12:03:44 AM

A key to fixing things will be finding a way to curb demagogues in congress and their opponents who attack wise solutions as signs of weakness.

As it is, only intrinsically macho dudes like Sen. Jim Webb dare to even discuss reasonable approaches.

We ain't much for learnin', we Americans. Ramp up conviction assembly lines to over-crowd prisons, warehouse millions of citizens in cages for years or decades, stigmatize them as "felons" so they can't find gainful jobs when they get out...then marvel at high recidivism rates.

Posted by: John K | Feb 11, 2009 10:52:32 AM

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