Too little, too costly

Unless you’ve been traveling in Mongolia the past few years, you’ve no doubt heard that California’s prison system is a mess. It’s got 172,000 inmates crammed into facilities built for half that many, a prison health system so bad that a treatable illness can be a death sentence, and a shameful lack of rehabilitation services for an agency called the Department of Corrections.

The system is so dismal and dysfunctional that federal judges have scheduled hearings in June on whether to take it over, as they already have done with the prison health system.

So it’s good news that the bipartisan $7.9 billion prison and jail construction bill Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed last week contains some positive provisions. Of them, the most significant is that the 40,000 new prison beds it will provide will be linked to vocation, drug-treatment, educational and mental-health programs. This is a big shift toward rehabilitation in a state that for several decades has done little but warehouse prisoners in what amount to “colleges of crime” offering advanced degrees in antisocial behavior at a per-person cost equal to Stanford’s.

But the bill is overly reliant on the failed—and exceedingly expensive—practice of building prisons and short on creative—and relatively inexpensive—alternatives.

Missing, for example, is a provision that would establish a commission to overhaul the state’s overly rigid sentencing structure. And the bill does nothing to improve parole. One of the system’s biggest problems is that, when many prisoners’ terms are up, it just dumps them on the street, alone, broke and with nowhere to turn. Little wonder that they go back to their lives of crime.

The bill also fails to incorporate early release of selected nonviolent offenders. A recent study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that inmates released early did as well as those released at the end of their terms, as long as their release was coupled with sound risk assessment and adequate re-entry services.

It would be worthwhile to create a pilot early-release program for qualified inmates to determine whether it works. It’s certainly a reasonable alternative to spending so much money keeping people locked up, money the state can ill afford.