Cut prison spending

The concept has voters’ support and a court order behind it

Whatever happens when voters go to the polls Tuesday (May 19), legislators will be looking for more places to cut spending. That’s because California is already facing, due to declining tax revenues, a budget shortfall in 2009-10 of at least $8 billion, and perhaps as much as $10 billion.

If the ballot measures fail, as polls now indicate they will, that number will jump to $14 billion or more—even $21.3 billion, as Gov. Schwarzenegger now estimates.

A recent Field Poll shows voters favor resolving the budget deficit mostly through spending cuts rather than tax increases. At the same time, they oppose cutbacks in 10 of 12 major categories of state spending, including the three largest—public schools, health care and higher education.

A majority supports making budget cutbacks in only two program areas: state prisons and corrections (59 percent in favor) and state parks and recreation (51 percent).

That, combined with a recent court ruling, will put tremendous pressure on Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to make significant reductions in the state prison population. In February, a three-judge federal court panel indicated it was likely to order the state to reduce the number of inmates by 57,000, fully one-third of the present population.

Currently, the prisons hold nearly twice as many inmates as they were designed for. Inmates are double-celled and, in some cases, triple-celled. The levels of stress and tension have become frighteningly dangerous, and medical care is atrocious.

The reasons for the overcrowding are obvious: We have multiple ways to send people to prison, but few ways to rehabilitate them once they arrive there or assist them when they’re released on parole. Instead of investing in quality probation services and community corrections programs, the state relies on high-cost incarceration for its answer to crime. As a result, California has the highest recidivism rates in the country. It epitomizes “revolving-door justice.”

There are a number of steps the state could take immediately to reduce the prison population. One would be to release all geriatric prisoners, especially those with expensive medical problems. Another would be to stop returning parolees to prison for minor violations. A third would be to shave a few months off the average sentence of nonviolent offenders.

Ultimately, though, we need to invest in community responses to nonviolent crime. Community-based corrections programs allow offenders to be in the work force and pay restitution while freeing up prison space for more-dangerous, long-term offenders.