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Editorial: No more musical beds

money prison

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On Tuesday, we commented here on the ongoing overcrowding crisis in California prisons and concluded that our prison system is failing.

That failure is cast in sharp relief by the demand from federal court judges that the population in the state’s prison cells be further reduced to a level of about 110,000 prisoners. That level, if achieved, will still leave the prison population at 137.5 percent of capacity, a degree of overcrowding the courts consider “humane.” Design capacity, as of January 2011, was 83,981.

On Wednesday, the legislature adopted a solution to the immediate constitutional crisis by agreeing to a compromise between opposing plans promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown, along with most legislative leaders, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. Brown’s plan called for spending $315 million on “additional capacity” (read, renting prison space out of state, in county jails or in to-be-built private cells in California). Steinberg’s plan called for investing $200 million a year in increased resources for ex-con intervention to keep them from coming back at the current recidivism rate of about 58 percent, the second-highest rate in the country.

The compromise passed Wednesday adopts Brown’s $315 million proposal, but, on the chance that the three-judge-panel currently driving the state’s prison population bus allows for an extension of the Dec. 31 deadline, the first $75 million saved from Brown’s plan would go into the state’s “Recidivism Reduction Fund,” with additional funds added if prison capacity costs don’t increase.

Notwithstanding a quibbling debate over what level of double-celling, dormitory-dumping, sardine-packing should be considered a humane level of punitive confinement, and where those now-illegally-congested bodies should be sent, none of this addresses the real issue of California prison overcrowding

Ultimately, many experts agree, it all comes down to real rehabilitation and sentencing – California has some of the most aggressive sentencing guidelines in the nation. A modest but significant subset of that problem is the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders arrested simply for personal possession. There are about 10,000 such offenders in state prison at present and, if you assume that each one represents a state budget slice of between $25,000 and $47,000 a year, the annual tab for keeping those 10,000 confined is somewhere between one-quarter and one-half of a billion dollars. That could pay for a whole lot of rehab.

Most of that incarceration is connected to controlled substances, such as meth and cocaine, two major blights on society. But there is little to no evidence that locking up users eliminates use, while alternative drug treatment and job training programs have at least modest records of success. Since 1980, California spending on higher education has declined 13 percent while the cost of “corrections” has ballooned by more than 400 percent. To what end?

Sentencing reform needs to be driven by non-political correctional experts with no influence from the California Correctional Police Officers Association, one of the most powerful unions in the state. A non-partisan sentencing commission, like those used in 21 other states, is desperately needed to focus sentences served toward concrete results and real social benefits.

Musical beds is not a solution to anything.