How bad is California's prison overcrowding?
Last week, two federal judges ordered creation of a special panel to examine ways to relieve California's overcrowded prisons, which could include capping the inmate population or early release of some prisoners.
The state's prison system has grown such that conditions make it impossible to provide acceptable medical and mental health care. The judge's findings include, on average, one prisoner dying every 10 days based on neglect or malpractice.
The result, according to the Atlantic Monthly, is that California houses more inmates than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature tried to avoid federal intervention by passing this spring AB-900 -- a $7.8 billion program to build new prison and jail cells. The judges, however, said that AB900, submitted to the courts in June, would only make the existing conditions worse.
"This court has come, with extreme reluctance but firm conviction, to the conclusion that overcrowding in the CDCR is preventing the delivery of constitutionally adequate mental health (care) ... and, therefore, that some form of limitation on the inmate population must be considered," U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento wrote in a 14-page decision.
The mere fact that prison overcrowding in California exists as the state's violent crime continues to decline demonstrates the failure of policies that have been decades in the making. What we are witnessing, in part, are the political hyperbole chickens coming home to roost.
Law-and-order candidates of both major political parties for years have ridden the tough-on-crime crest to victory. Californians overwhelmingly supported the "Three Strikes" law through the initiative process. And when some measure of sanity was offered to repeal portions that permanently locked up nonviolent offenders several years ago, a bipartisan coalition of former governors, along with Schwarzenegger, worked for its defeat.
Since prison overcrowding publicly reached the crisis state last year, California has attempted to do in seven months what had been in the works for more than 20 years. Further adding to the crisis is California's recidivism rate, which remains the highest in the nation.
The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state research organization, estimated in 2005 that the California prisons spend roughly $1.5billion annually on parole violators and parolees who commit new crimes. The commission also cites that 10 percent of parolees are homeless, half are illiterate and up to 80 percent are unemployed. Moreover, 80 percent are drug users.
It does not require much to understand that ill-prepared parolees who cannot hold down a job, lack skills or possess ongoing drug addictions soon will be back behind bars. The Little Hoover Commission further concludes that parole violators comprise more than one-third of all inmates.
Factor in aging inmates and the number of nonviolent offenders, then ask: What do such states as Alabama, Louisiana and Texas know that California does not?
As I wrote earlier this year, the state's prison overcrowding problems are a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Three-Strikes" laws, the high percentage of nonviolent offenders, deemphasis on rehabilitation and the failure to address chronic problems that give California the nation's highest recidivism rate greatly contribute to the current crisis conditions.
California's prison overcrowding problem has placed elected officials in the unenviable position of having to do too much too late, which could lead to a lot of window dressing without much substantive change.
There is no good answer in the short term. The popular political choice, which is to build more prisons, has been unsuccessful -- unless of course you're in construction, the prison guard union or some other industry that directly benefits.
What we need now is a systematic change of direction that will require years, not months, that puts everything on the table including the current application of the "Three Strikes" laws along with additional resources for rehabilitation, medical care, mental health services, drug treatment and a common sense approach to dealing with nonviolent and aging offenders -- not to mention a little political courage.
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at (510) 208-6417.