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Solving California’s Prison Crisis Requires Smarter Approach

New America Media, Commentary, Heidi Strupp Posted: Mar 27, 2009

Editor’s Note: A court ruling that finds overcrowding is the primary cause of California’s unconstitutional prison conditions could prompt some reforms in the state’s bloated but not very effective correctional system. But it would require Californians to step back and look at the big picture of the legacy of three decades of “tough on crime” policies says Heidi Strupp. Strupp is Advocacy Coordinator at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. She co-authored Dignity Denied: The Price of Imprisoning Older Women in California, a report that summarizes the unique challenges faced by people as they age in prison.

On Feb. 9, a panel of three federal judges issued a tentative ruling that may force the California state correctional system to reduce its over-crowded prisons by as many as 57,000 prisoners over a two to three-year period. Currently, nearly 172,000 people live in a system designed for 84,000. California’s 70 percent recidivism rate means that seven out of ten prisoners already cycle through the revolving prison gates at an annual cost of $900 million. The judges’ order asserts that extreme crowding represents the primary cause of unconstitutional prison conditions, including the state’s failure to provide adequate health care. As the Schwarzenegger administration and state legislators gear up for the next round in their stand-off against the courts in this notorious battle, it might prove instructive to step back and take a long look at the bigger picture. With 1 in 31 Americans now under some form of correctional control according to a report released this month by the Pew Center on the States, averting our eyes from this “big picture” is no longer a wise option.

California prisons
As California looks towards solving this correctional crisis, we could choose to paint a very different picture. We could begin to erase some costly and often ineffective “tough on crime” policies and move towards making smart choices regarding our limited public safety dollars. Solving the crisis of our expensive overcrowded prisons could begin by releasing some of the state’s aging prisoners. This group of prisoners – over 10,500 – currently cost taxpayers the most to incarcerate (as much as three times that of younger prisoners, or upwards of $138,000) yet pose the least threat to public safety. Recidivism rates for people over 55 range from 2% - 10%. Spending the most amount to incarcerate the least dangerous prisoners is a very skewed picture.

But a long-term vision of how California addresses crime and safety requires a much bigger vision for a whole new picture. It begins with a critical look at our 30-year history of “tough on crime” policies that have driven up incarceration rates and resulted in unparalleled prison spending both in California and across the nation. Schools of higher learning have been erased while prisons have been sketched in their place. Fading into the background is the $5.2 billion in spending cuts to K-12 education and $1.1 billion in cuts to in-home support services for low income seniors and people with disabilities. Vanishing too are the 1.3 million low-income Californians who will lose well over a billion dollars in SSI benefits; the 230,000 children who will no longer qualify for CalWorks cash assistance and the 14,000 teachers now clutching pink slips. California’s big picture looks very similar to many other states. The Pew Center report reveals that, nationwide, corrections spending outpaces funding for education, transportation and public assistance.

No squinting is required to clearly see that the big picture for the California state prison system is one of massive spending, deep dysfunction, and profound suffering. Despite significant and ongoing cuts to public education and social services, California’s legislature last year passed AB 900, a bill that represents the largest prison building initiative in state history. California’s correctional system costs tax payers over $9 billion annually, almost triple that of Texas, the next biggest spender whose annual prison budget is $3.3 billion. Keep in mind this $9 billion buys an unconstitutional system where nearly every major component - including its youth facilities, medical, mental health, dental care systems, and programs for disabled prisoners – faces costly legal challenges. California’s parole apparatus, dubbed a “billion dollar failure,” boasts the nation’s highest recidivism rate at 70%. Of the $46,000 spent per year on each prisoner, more than two-thirds pays for administrative and security costs, including the salaries of the state’s strongest union – the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Union. Despite increases in corrections spending, studies show that crime rates remain relatively unchanged. This challenges the idea that a bloated prison budget brings us more safety.

Looking beyond the frame of California’s big picture, there are a series of portraits and group photos. One of them shows the wrinkled and bruised wrists of Ethel D., a 67-year-old Lifer serving time for killing her abusive husband, who endures painful shackles whenever she is sent to an outside hospital. Another image reveals the tens of thousands of people cycled through revolving prison doors due to minor technical parole violations like getting married without permission from one’s parole officer or being late to an appointment with a parole officer. Yet one more picture shows the faces of thousands of Lifers, many of whom have served decades in prison and may actually pose little threat to public safety, especially as they grow old and become increasingly frail.

One last picture: a bookshelf crowded with the dusty and often ignored reports written by some of the state’s most trusted correctional experts, the Little Hoover Commission, the Governor’s Corrections Independent Review Panel, and the Legislative Analyst’s Office. These reports contain hundreds of safe and smart strategies for reducing California’s overcrowded prisons: ending technical parole violations, paroling low-risk expensive older prisoners, increasing funding for drug diversion programs like Prop 36, repealing harsh and ineffective sentencing policies like the “Three Strikes” law, and paroling Lifers found suitable for release by the state Board of Parole Hearings.

Addressing California’s prison crisis means we must courageously question whether mass imprisonment - at the expense of our schools, health clinics, seniors centers, and homeless shelters - makes us safer. To really solve this crisis, we need to paint a whole new picture.

Related Articles:

Golden Girls Behind Bars

Prison Overcrowding Crisis Unhealthy for All Californians



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