Enough with getting tough on CA prisons

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NOVEMBER 01, 2011

Locking up bad guys comforts us in a very primal way. But after almost 30 years of “get tough” policies favoring stronger inmate penalties, we need to recast the debate away from emotion and look at the evidence. We must be smart on crime to see what correctional practices actually work to keep us safe.

As students, you are expected to learn the facts, draw conclusions and make an argument. Shouldn’t the State of California be expected to do the same when making decisions that affect lives and billions of your tax dollars? This year, our ongoing budget crisis was reason enough to think big on corrections reform and Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment proposal was an opportunity to act.

We entered 2011 with an 18-month, $26.6 billion budget gap — a substantial sum considering last year’s budget was $86.5 billion. With anti-tax extremists preventing the possibility of any revenue solution to help restore California’s financial stability, we were forced to balance the budget only through choosing what to cut, reform and eliminate. Since our correctional system is fourth in line among the state’s largest spending areas, it was a natural target for tough scrutiny.

In 1990, roughly when the members of Cal’s senior class were born, California spent $2.7 billion on corrections and incarcerated nearly 100,000 inmates. We now spend over $9.8 billion and incarcerate about 163,000. For all we spend, we should expect results. But California’s gigantic state corrections system has failed us.

Between 1990 and 2005, California’s prison population increased by 73 percent — nearly three times faster than the general adult population. Our prisons now operate under the supervision of federal courts because they are overcrowded and have failed to provide adequate inmate health care. And, nearly half of released inmates return to prison within a year.

At a time when state budget cuts will cause 70 state parks to close, tuition at our state colleges and universities to possibly double and public libraries to lose half of their funding, it’s difficult to contemplate why corrections — with all of its deficiencies — should not be a significant part of solutions that help balance our state budget.

Realignment offers us the chance to end the cycle of putting more money into a broken system. Now, the state will focus on incarcerating the most dangerous criminals and counties will provide innovative rehabilitation services to non-violent offenders. By redirecting funding and responsibilities through this framework, our criminal justice system can operate at significantly lower cost and achieve better results.

In dollars and cents, California spends $46,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in prison. It costs half that amount to incarcerate an offender in county jail and significantly less for community-based alternatives. We know this approach can work because tough law and order states like Texas have pursued similar policies, cut costs and improved public safety in the process.

With one in 20 of its adults within its correctional system in 2004, Texas had the world’s highest incarceration rate. When faced with a $2 billion prison expansion bill during a budget crisis in 2005, Texas chose to spend about $300 million to beef up drug treatment programs, mental health centers, probation services and community supervision. The result was a nine percent drop in incarceration and a 12.8 percent drop in crime between 2005 and 2010.

I encourage reform opponents to rethink their views because realignment offers us a chance to replicate the success that Texas and other states have had. All it takes is a decision based on the facts.

The stakes are dire. We can stay the course, have a bloated and ineffective corrections system, and impose the burden of future budget cuts on programs that benefit law-abiding citizens. Or we can protect programs like public education and health care by getting smart on corrections.

We are now one month into a realigned California. As the biggest restructuring of government in a generation, there will certainly be a lot of work to do along the way to ensure that this effort is successful. But if implemented and funded correctly, California can finally get a correctional system that helps this state transform into an even better place.

Contact Bob Blumenfield at 


OCTOBER 31, 2011