Toward prison reform

Lock ’em up and throw away the key.

When it comes to criminals, that’s the way California lawmakers want it, apparently. For too long now they have responded to crime in a way that is designed not so much to serve the interests of justice, but rather to appear tough on crime so as to lose no votes. For three decades they have been doing just that, steadily increasing sentences and throwing more and more people into prison for longer periods of time.

More than any other state, California relies on incarceration as the response to every crime rather than investing in alternative approaches such as effective adult probation services and community corrections programs. This approach simply isn’t working; two-thirds of parolees return to prison within three years. This “revolving door justice” is the main reason the state’s prisons are the most crowded in the nation, with 172,000 inmates crammed into space designed for half that number.

Then there’s the cost: $43,287 annually for each adult prisoner and a whopping $185,000 a year for every juvenile—enough to send four kids to Stanford.

Because of the overcrowding, prisoners-rights groups have successfully sued the Department of Corrections several times, charging that conditions in the prisons constitute cruel and unusual punishment and are therefore unconstitutional. A federal judge has put the CDC’s entire medical delivery system in receivership, and another judge has threatened to install a population cap unless the state solves its overcrowding problem by June.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has included $457,000 in his 2007-08 budget to set up a commission to overhaul the state’s sentencing guidelines. That’s a start, but much more is needed. If released prisoners are going to be successful on the outside, they need help in the form of local corrections and treatment programs that can support them in their efforts to stay out of trouble.

This is especially true for the 35,000 people convicted each year of nonviolent crimes. These are people who can be rehabilitated, who can be “corrected,” and it’s time for the Department of Corrections to live up to its name.

The public now recognizes that the punishment-only model of incarceration isn’t working. They believe it’s time for sentencing reform, and they know that rehabilitation is an important corollary of punishment. Polls have shown they believe offenders can turn their lives around and that they would rather their tax dollars were spent on programs to help them find jobs or get treatment than building new prisons.

If not now, when?