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Editorial: Prison system is failing

First, let’s review a few widely-known statistics, and then let’s talk about the current prison over-crowding conflict that has Gov. Jerry Brown, State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and the U.S. District Court in what could be crudely but appropriately referred to as a three-way political pissing match.

First the statistics: The United States has roughly 2.26-million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons. That is four times the prison population in 1980, despite a general decline in violent crime. In 2006, California reached a peak prison population of more than 173,000 inmates, roughly twice the design capacity of its prisons.

Nationwide, another 4.8 million people are on probation or parole, which means that close to 7 million Americans were under correctional supervision in 2011. That amounts to nearly 3 percent of the U.S. adult resident population. And that doesn’t count the nearly 87,000 juveniles incarcerated in the criminal justice system.

We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, at least based on publicly-reported data, higher even than Russia, China or South Africa, and roughly seven times higher than Canada, Europe and Australia.

What accounts for these staggering prisoner statistics? Why are so many of us locked up, especially in California, which has the nation’s largest prison population, one of the highest incarceration rates and, in 2008, an annual cost per prisoner of $47,000?


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