Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A cautionary tale

Everyone always wants longer prison sentences.  Every crime problem in the country can be solved by putting people behind bars longer.  No politician ever won election by being "soft on crime", aka advocating probation and rehabilitation as preferable to incarceration.

But see where that gets you?  California as a state is in crisis mode.  It's a financial disaster prompting the interesting question of whether a state can declare bankruptcy.  One of the major, identifiable contributors to California's cash flow problems is its massive prison overcrowding.  The prison budget is about 11% of California's overall budget, a pretty hefty chunk (more than higher education).  At its high point, the prison population was estimated at 180% capacity.  That's not good.  The article has a few pictures that show what kind of living conditions such overcrowding leads to.  At least one federal judge has ordered California to reduce its prison population to comply with the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

For many people, the natural reaction is to think, "Oh, boo hoo for the poor criminals.  Prison shouldn't be cushy.  Don't do the crime if you can't do the time."  Unfortunately, too many people aren't interested in pushing past that initial reaction to think more sensibly about crime and punishment policy.  If that's you, then I've got news for you: you are part of the problem.  Because this kind of prison overcrowding leads to spiraling costs which leads to cutting of education, vocational training, and counseling programs in prisons which leads to greater recidivism upon release.  California has the highest recidivism rate in the country at 70%.  In short, by focusing only on long prison sentences to the exclusion of all other sentencing options out there, we're screwing ourselves.

Because California dragged its heels so much about addressing its overcrowding problem, they are now put in the impossible position of having to release thousands of inmates and having to decide which of those won't be supervised at all on release.  Hardly an ideal situation.  But it does at least provide evidence for my long-held contention that long prison sentences as a response to any and all crimes is actually contrary to our best interests.  Pouring money into simply warehousing people doesn't do us any good.  Here's hoping California's forced experimentation with alternatives to incarceration and parole supervision strategies will ultimately yield some good ideas.  It's probably overly-optimistic of me to think maybe our bad economy will finally force us to pursue more sensible crime policy.  But California has no other choice.  Maybe other states can learn something and fix policies before they reach the brink of bankruptcy.

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