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?
Many correctional experts blame overly-harsh sentencing guidelines, established during the tough-on-crime ’80s, and on the war on drugs, considered by critics on all sides to be a massively-expensive failure that vastly inflated both federal and state prison populations.
The impact on California – sociologically and economically – has been horrendous, and in 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the effect of overcrowding on inmate health and safety had reached unconstitutional levels. California, the court ruled, had to reduce the inmate population to either 110,000 or to 137.5 percent of capacity.
What followed was Gov. Brown’s “realignment” plan, that transferred thousands of prisoners to county jails, out of state facilities or, for non-violent offenders, into early release.
By the end of August, the state’s prison population had been deflated by 25,000 inmates, to about 120,000, but the three-judge federal panel overseeing the process insisted that close to another 8,000 must be moved or released before the end of the year.
In response, the governor has proposed a two-year, $730 million alternative housing plan that would send thousands more inmates to private prisons and county jails. Steinberg countered with a plan to spend $200 million more a year on rehabilitation, drug treatment and mental illness care, in hopes of permanently reducing the recidivision rate.
It is unclear where the resulting debate will lead, but this much is crystal clear to us: California desperately needs to overhaul its extreme sentencing guidelines, ideally through creation of an independent sentencing commission. That should include a dramatic reduction in prison sentences for personal drug use by non-violent offenders. And the state should follow Steinberg’s lead to invest more in keeping former prisoners out of prison. The current system is failing.