Prisoners of ignorance

If ignorance were a crime, nearly every elected official in California could be locked up—if only there were enough cells! For, as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reminded us last week, California’s prisons are “dangerously overcrowded”—which leads us, like a dog chasing its own tail, right back to ignorance, because that’s about the only explanation for the state’s ongoing prison crisis.

It’s no secret that California’s correctional system is in horrible shape; we’ve written about it in this space plenty of times. Statewide, 172,000 inmates are currently packed sardine-like into a system designed to hold 100,000. That’s more than seven times the 22,000 prisoners the state incarcerated in 1980. Currently, more than double that number, 44,455, are being held on drug-related offenses alone, in spite of the passage of Proposition 36 in 2000, which mandated treatment instead of imprisonment for nonviolent drug abusers.

Rehabilitation for prisoners has become an exceedingly sick joke. According to the Department of Corrections, 70 percent of the inmates released annually return within two years. Two-thirds of California’s inmates are drug abusers, yet there are virtually no treatment options available in prison.

As stated above, none of this is secret. In fact, the prison system was one of the many things the governor promised to reform during the recall election. But, according to a recent investigation of the prison system ordered by a federal judge, Schwarzenegger’s efforts to reform the system so far have failed.

So, last week Schwarzenegger proposed a “new” solution to the problem: Build more prisons.

To that end, he called for a special legislative session, to be held sometime before the regular session ends in August. Problem is, this is election season, and expecting politicians to deal rationally with the issue is akin to throwing gasoline on a fire.

Case in point: Senator Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, who’s spent the better part of this year attempting to undo Proposition 36. Research has shown that incarceration does little to help nonviolent drug offenders and can in fact exacerbate the problem. Proposition 36 has been hailed as a more rational approach. Nevertheless, Ducheny wants parolees who use drugs again to be thrown back into the clink.

After Ducheny’s colleagues in the Senate rejected her bill earlier this year, she attached it as a rider on the recently passed budget. Schwarzenegger has threatened to cut off funds for Proposition 36 rehabilitation programs if her “reform” isn’t accepted.

Let’s see if we have this straight: If you don’t agree to something that doesn’t work, we won’t fund something that does work. It’s a hell of a way to make policy. Expect more of the same if legislators grant the governor his special session. We’d hope they might resist his proposal, but we know better. When it comes to our public officials, ignorance is not only bliss; it runs rampant.

Unfortunately, as of yet, it is not illegal.