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Why California Has a Nightmare Prison Mess

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Aug 09, 2009

The ruling by three federal judges that California must release more than 40,000 inmates to relieve gross overcrowding was much expected and much dreaded. California prisons house more inmates than any other state. In fact, it houses more inmates than several states combined. The system was set up to warehouse 84,000 inmates. It has nearly double that number.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown denounced the ruling as federal intrusion in state affairs. Police officials, unions, and GOP state legislators railed that it would flood the streets with violent criminals. The horrid killing of 17-year-old high school student Lily Burk, allegedly by a just-released ex-con, instantly became their see I told you war cry for keeping the cell doors locked tight. Yet, jail riots, dumping thousands of inmates back on the streets, prisoner lawsuits, draconian budget slashes and gross overcrowding have made Californias jails the nation's poster jail system for dysfunction.

The bitter truth that cops and conservatives and much of the public don't want to face is that Californias prisons are a mess because far too many people are being tossed into the prisons when they don't have to be. With little fanfare and no public outcry, other states that have faced prison overcrowding have implemented programs that have reduced the prison numbers without increasing the danger to public safety.

They've increased funding for and expanded the use of specialty courts to screen and refer defendants to drug, domestic-violence, and mental-health treatment. They issue citations for a variety of misdemeanor offenses, impose community service and pretrial diversion on offenders. They've increased the use of pre-incarceration probation and bail hearings to determine if an offender who does not pose a flight or public-safety risk can be released.

These aren't bleeding-heart soft-on-crime ploys. In a report on California jail and prison conditions nearly a decade ago, the Little Hoover Commission noted that education, work training, drug-treatment and counseling programs are the best and most cost-effective ways to reduce recidivism rates. California prison officials also concede that the prime cause for the jail overcrowding is the lack of drug and work programs for parolees.

Still, the public horror of dumping thousands of prisoners back on the streets makes officials gun-shy about implementing any reforms that can be misconstrued as coddling criminals. L.A. County jail officials, for instance, has taken much heat for a prisoner early-release program.

But a close look at those released show that most are jailed for non violent, misdemeanor offenses.

This isnt to say some of those jailed for non-violent offenses dont pose a potential threat to public safety. Burks alleged killer obviously fits that bill. But the reality is that it's either release them or risk more inmate turmoil, lawsuits and federal tampering with the prisons. This not a choice that California legislators and prison officials want to make. And it's a choice that they wouldn't have to make if they'd aggressively implement the reform programs that other cities and states are using to help people turn their lives around.

For a brief time, that included California state prison officials, and that includes California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He recognized the crucial importance of reform programs to reduce prison overcrowding and the high rate of recidivism. One of the first things he did when he took office was publicly pledge to spend more on work and diversion. The first day in office in 2005 he appointed a reform-minded prison specialist to run the prisons and jump-start the reforms.

But a year later, he was gone, and a report found that the programs were not implemented or drastically scaled back and the recidivism rate had soared. In a report in 2000, the Bureau of Justice warned that the public either out of desperation over the surging prison population or wishful thinking about what can reduce the numbers naively assumes that building more jails is the answer to overcrowding. But the bureau flatly said that was a terrible assumption. Legions of criminal justice experts have also said pretty much the same thing.

Steve Ingley, the American Jails Association president, has gone further. He blames the prison crisis on politicians who pass mountains of laws to burnish their tough-on-crime credentials, but refuse to provide the resources to improve the jails. Their abominable short sightedness was on full display when state legislators slashed millions in funding for successful drug treatment diversionary programs that helped keep thousands of people out of jail cells. This terribly self-defeating cutback coupled with the lack of political will and imagination to enact programs that will end overcrowding and jail violence is a surefire prescription that guarantees that Californias soaring rate of recidivism will continue unabated.

This only means more prison overcrowding. It also means that dumping thousands of inmates on the street is no fix for Californias nightmare prison mess.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, The Hutchinson Report can be heard weekly in Los Angeles at 9:30 a.m. Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on ktym.com

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