Federal Courts to the Rescue: Fixing California’s Broken Prison System

by Dan Macallair on August 20, 2009

Nothing reflects the broken and dysfunctional nature of California politics than the State’s prison system. Because of the chronic inability of the legislature and governor to act responsibly, a panel of three Federal judges was forced to intervene and order the state to reduce the inmate population by 44,000. Already the hue and cry from posturing politicians and their allied interest groups has begun in earnest with the usual bombastic claims of compromised public safety.

The current crisis was created 30 years ago when the state’s politicians embraced a politically expedient but ruinous approach to sentencing that emphasized imprisonment for all types of offenders. Under this sweeping punitive ideology, sentences were blindly increased with no concern for inmate needs or their discomforts. Gymnasiums and classrooms were converted to dormitories and rehabilitative services were dismantled as the prison population swelled from 20,000 in 1980 to over 167,000 today. As the three judge panel observed, California prisons are now a depressing world of idleness, misery, and danger, where inmates languish with little hope of future success. Once released, former prisoners confront an array of challenges for which, even the most motivated, are unprepared.

The punishment ideology as practiced in California is a canard that must now be put to rest. California should reserve prison space for only the most dangerous and violent, while community-based sanctions should be emphasized for the nonviolent. Curiously most of the state’s prison growth resulted from the routine imprisonment of vastly more drug, property and less serious offenders. For example, there are currently 12,817 Californians serving prison sentences for simple drug possession while in 1980 there were only a few hundred. Although using prison space to punish nonviolent offenders was rejected in 1990 by Governor Deukmejian’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Inmate Population Management, their warnings went unheeded by subsequent governors and legislators.

The senseless escalation in imprisonment has a destructive impact on the state budget as the cost of the prison system has increased from 3 percent of the state budget to nearly 10 percent today. Despite these increases and the pronouncements of prison ideologues, no evidence exists that increased imprisonment lowers crime. Recent studies of California sentencing practices by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice clearly shows that counties who commit large numbers of offenders to state prison, do not have lower crime rates relative to jurisdictions that commit few offenders. For example, in the past eight years Contra Costa County reduced its prison commitments by 24%, and recorded an 8% decline in its violence crime rate. At the same time, neighboring San Joaquin County increased its prison commitments by 25% and yet violent crime increased by 11%.

Reforming California’s prison system is as difficult as reforming the health care system for many of the same reasons. California’s prison expansion created a network of organized interest groups that have a political or economic interest in protecting the present system. These groups coalesce at the mere suggestion of reducing the prison population and have been able to stop any efforts to curtail the growth of prison spending. Even though the release of 44,000 nonviolent, chronically ill, elderly, or female inmates represents modest change, the fact that it required Federal court intervention is indicative of the moral bankruptcy that engulfs the state’s political system.

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