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October 25, 2008

"The California Prison Disaster"

The title of this post is the title of this potent editorial in today's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

The mass imprisonment philosophy that has packed prisons and sent corrections costs through the roof around the country has hit especially hard in California, which has the largest prison population, the highest recidivism rate and a prison budget raging out of control.

According to a new federally backed study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, the state’s corrections costs have grown by about 50 percent in less than a decade and now account for about 10 percent of state spending — nearly the same amount as higher education.  The costs could rise substantially given that a federal lawsuit may require the state to spend $8 billion to bring the prison system’s woefully inadequate medical services up to constitutional standards.

The solution for California is to shrink its vastly overcrowded prison system.  To do so, it would need to move away from mandatory sentencing laws that have proved to be disastrous across the country — locking up more people than protecting public safety requires.

In addition, the state also has perhaps the most counterproductive and ill-conceived parole system in the United States.  More people are sent to prison in California by parole officers than by the courts. In addition, about 66 percent of California’s parolees land back in prison after three years, compared with about 40 percent nationally.  Four in 10 are sent back for technical violations like missed appointments or failed drug tests....

State lawmakers, some of whom are fearful of being seen as soft on crime, have failed to make perfectly reasonable sentencing modifications and other changes that the prisons desperately need.  Unless they muster some courage soon, Californians will find themselves swamped by prison costs and unable to afford just about anything else.

The story of California's failure to move forward with much-needed sentencing and prison reform (even while other states from many other parts of the country done so) highlight that being "dumb on crime" is not a function of various traditional political divides like red/blue or north/south or conservative/liberal or elites/common-folks.  Rather, being smart on crime takes serious and committed leadership, real political wisdom and courage, and open-mindedness to new ideas and distinct reform paradigms, all of which seem to have been in short supply in California as its sentencing and prison problems have grown progressively worse over the past decade.

October 25, 2008 at 02:07 PM | Permalink


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Legalize drugs, tax them, pass a general amnesty and release all nonviolent drug offenders, and use drug tax revenue to fund prisons for the remaining, actual criminals. There will be enough money left over to repeal the state sales tax and still fund education with twice as many dollars as are currently being spent. Prison and education can easily be paid for with drug tax revenue.

People just need to undo the 40 years of government brainwashing that has left no doubt in their little minds that "drugs are bad". We'd need a multimillion dollar "Say Yes to Drugs!" campaign just to begin undoing the damage.

Posted by: BruceM | Oct 25, 2008 2:13:06 PM

Another factor: California's corrections system has been devastated in part by the initiative and referendum process, where tougher mandatories passed without any funding mechanisms to pay for them.

FWIW, Texas has had real good success managing its prison population recently by creating progresive sanctions systems to reduce probation and parole revocations, giving judges alternatives to revoking Ds and sending them back to prison. Some of that involved investing in Intermediate Sanctions Facilities for short-term stays instead of revoking back to prison for their full term. If parole revocations are their main problem, that might be a solution they could look at.

Also, I've never quite understood the massive extent of CA's recidivism problems. Texas 3-year recidivism rate is less than half of CA's - the last I saw it was around 28%.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 25, 2008 3:06:12 PM


If you have too little supervision the recidivism rate will be high and that will also be true if there is too much supervision. I believe that in CA there is too little supervision probably because they won't provide the funds needed for a optimum level.

I have lived in CA a couple of times once right after prop 13 had passed and the second time when they were getting ready to toss out Governor Davis. I guess they must think it does not matter that they have a nonfunctional government.

Posted by: John Neff | Oct 25, 2008 3:35:14 PM

High recidivism rates are desirable for the prison industrial complex, as well as law enforcement. The privately owned prisons (CCI, etc) literally get their (involuntary) customers back, law enforcement gets to cite the figures to justify higher, ever-increasing budgets, monitoring services get to use the figures to justify new, more expensive and invasive monitoring technologies. The media gets to cite the recidivism figures to keep the population scared of former inmates (high recidivism means released criminals are likely to snatch and rape your child - learn more tonight at ten after sports and weather). Need more parole/probation officers. Need mroe cops. Need more guns. Need more prisons. Need more guards. And of course, we need TOUGHER LAWS and LONGER SENTENCES because clearly the ones we have now are not keeping criminals from committing more crimes. Cha-ching! More money, more power.

We don't even consider "rehabilitation" to be a serious goal of incarceration anymore.

Posted by: BruceM | Oct 25, 2008 5:14:58 PM

It's because Republicans who promote these laws are liars. Those who voted for the 3 Strikes Law thought it would only apply to violent offenders, then when the initiative to change it was going to pass, the governor toured the state and terrified voters with lies a judge ruled could not be included with the initiative because they were false. With Jessica's Law, voters thought all sex offenders would be banished from their neighborhoods. Sorry, no, "we never intended it to be ex post facto" [but thanks for the Republican votes!]. Now there are Props 6 and 8, complex laws that could radically change the Penal Code and rules of evidence. But the real kicker is Prop 5, the nonviolent rehabilitation initiative, and the Republicans (the authorities opposed) are lying again. It's contemptible to the extreme.

Before Kent claims "they" had to take it to the people, only 9% of The People are satisfied with the initiative process and the majority are ready to change it.

Posted by: | Oct 26, 2008 2:19:39 AM

Typo, that should be Props 6 and 9, not 8.

Posted by: | Oct 26, 2008 2:44:11 AM

News Flash for Clueless:

Most people don't care about politics. They care even less about the law. And criminal sentencing doesn't even register on the radar.

People care about Paris Hilton, playing World of Warcraft, and sunning on the beach. There is nothing wrong with the California referendum process. It is a great example of a cultural relic, like ones appendix. It once served a useful purpose but no longer. That's not because the process has changed but because the culture has changed. Once upon a time political engagement was considered a noble act; then it became a method for a man to "move up in the world". Now it's just a form of entertainment.

It is quite fitting the California should be struggling with these issue considering that they were responsible for the current cultural mess we find ourselves in.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 26, 2008 9:41:43 AM

There is sooo much truth to what most of you say in your comments. I believe until we take the profit out of the prison-industrial complex, increase transparency, take corruption out of the system (particularly in Illinois where all contracts with the State require a 10% kickback or bribe, leading to hiring unqualified patronage workers as officials and officers of the prison system), legalize marijuana and control it like tobacco or alcohol, and most important add rehabilitation into the prison system, as well as abolish the costly and useless death penalty, the system will remain hopeless broken and costly.

Ultimately we will be increasing the crime rate as angry, hostile, untrained prisoners, whose mental illness, addiction, and bad habits are ignored, are released into the population - as we reap the fruits of our 20 year failed experiment with being "tough on crime".

Posted by: Linda | Oct 26, 2008 10:04:52 AM


It is not a 20 year failed experiment with being "tough on crime" but a 40 year failed experiment (Remember the the Crime Control Act of 1968) that has resulted in generations of undereducated, economically downtrodden people being jailed. It is so culturally devastating that a large number of the younger generation of undereducated poor persons think that it is a badge of honor to obtain a prison number. Mass incarceration does not change this thought process.

Posted by: ky | Oct 26, 2008 8:46:26 PM

Legalizing marijuana won't do squat - we need to legalize ALL drugs. It's easy to advocate decriminalizing marijuana b/c it is the safest drug in the world, nobody has ever overdosed from it, and anything negative one can say about marijuana is ten times worse with alcohol. But only complete legalization of ALL drugs will solve these problems - that means heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, crack, PCP, LSD -- everything. Like the way things used to be a few decades ago, before civilization collapsed. Life was much better when all drugs were legal and readily available OTC without a prescription. Heroin does wonders for a bad cough. All opiates do.

Protecting us from ourselves is NOT a legitimate function of government in a free society. Moreover, practically all the negative externalities of drug use are not caused by the drugs, but rather drug laws. If you're rotting away in prison due to being convicted of possessing a controlled substance, it was not the drug that ruined your life, it was the law which made said possession unlawful which ruined your life. But tens of billions of dollars of propoganda has done an amazing job of blinding people to this basic reality.

Drugs don't ruin lives - drug laws ruin lives.

Posted by: BruceM | Oct 27, 2008 1:23:00 AM

And here I was, hoping against hope that brucem's absence from the comments section of this blog would be permanent.

Posted by: | Oct 27, 2008 8:01:24 AM

aww, the anonymous cowards don't like me for speaking the truth.

Posted by: brucem | Oct 27, 2008 6:56:03 PM

I must say BruceM does make a lot of sense. It is all about getting you and keeping you in ((THE SYSTEM)) Missing an appointment and being sent to prison for 15 months makes a World of CENTS. You could almost say it makes a "World of GOLD NUGGETS" because it's all about THE ALMIGHTY DOLLAR. Fifteen months on a FTA for someone that is non violent, not a criminal by no means is justice, Just-ice in their pockets, its a racket and a half. Its a head count for those Federal dollars that is, cuff um and stuff um thill all fit. That is B.S. someone, some how needs to step UP.

Posted by: Christ JM | Nov 11, 2008 6:04:42 AM

Yep, legalizing drugs and watching the nonviolent prisoners be released, the budget returned to sanity, and the stupid prohibition-caused crime and disease disapear would be perfect. People don't use drugs or not based on the law ( I don't- I won't use if its legal except for the alcohol, caffeine, and medical drugs I allready use).

And it is morally wrong to cage another human and label him a criminal and prevent employment because they possesed a drug not socially favored. Jail the criminals, let the drug war victims out to reclaim their lives and move on.

Posted by: johnm214 | Feb 14, 2009 5:15:27 PM

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