Prison Reform Is Needed in California

At the beginning of this month, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) commenced its prison realignment plan per the orders of the Supreme Court. CDCR’s realignment involves transporting non-serious, nonviolent, and/or nonsexual offenders from its notoriously overcrowded adult prison system to local county jails in an effort to reduce the current inmate population of 156,000 by about 40,000 within the next two years. California’s prison population has ballooned to the extent that gymnasiums were converted into makeshift sleeping quarters, single toilets are being shared by 54 inmates, and the mental and medical healthcare services can no longer treat the influx of inmates.

The Supreme Court’s May ruling that CDCR’s 200% over-capacity adult prison system is a blatant case of cruel and unusual punishment and reintroduces the outcry for prison reform. Stakeholders and policymakers must not take CDCR’s over-capacity, high recidivism rates (67.5% as opposed to the national average of 52%), and health care insufficiencies as an anomalous issue — America’s 2.3 million prison population, which is twice that of England’s and four times as much as France’s prison population, is a well-documented dilemma that warrants immediate attention.

If public officials want to create a properly functioning correctional system that emphasizes recidivism reduction, rehabilitation, and public safety, then there are drastic policy and cultural shifts that must be made within the current states and federal prison system, as well as the criminal justice system (perhaps one of the root causes for the prison boom of the last two decades).

In order to fix the system, we must reestablish what correctional facilities are designed for. This mostly involves revoking the justice system’s recent obsession with punitive desert theories (mandatory sentencing that takes away judges’ discretion and fortifies the power of prosecutors) and replacing it with a focus on rehabilitating inmates so that they may be transformed into productive citizens and reintegrated into society. Such an approach is often referred to as healing and transformative justice. If legislatures made educational, drug treatment, counseling, and job trade training programs more accessible and prominent in correctional facilities, then inmates will be more apt to reenter society on the right foot.

Not only is this method cost effective, but it also protects the public from high recidivism rates (presumably, one of the main purposes of correctional facilities). According to the Sentencing Project, as little as $962 spent on educational services can replace the current $5,306 spent on future criminal justice system costs for offenders who did not partake in educational programs. A powerful example can be found in Brooklyn, New York, where drug offenders who complete an alternative to prison drug treatment program are 87% less likely to return to prison. This also reduces the annual $30,000-$60,000 spent per inmate and $60 billion cost of running the prison system with its growing population.

Another imperative step is to draw the public’s attention to the gross media and political misrepresentation of the prison population. Most importantly, a more prominent distinction between non-serious and mentally ill offenders and other inmates must be drawn. Despite the extraordinary stories that saturate the media and primetime television hits like CSI, an estimated two-thirds of state prisons are comprised of non-serious offenders; 97% of federal prison inmates are convicted of non-violent crimes; and 16% of the prison population is mentally ill. Justice desert theories, particularly mandatory sentencing, are the leading cause of the prison boom that has shipped away so many Americans for non-violent offenses.

Ironically, the length of imprisonment is mostly ineffective in crime deterrence, especially for more serious offenses. Thus, mandatory sentencing and three-strike legislation are virtually ineffective in discouraging criminal activity. On the contrary, education and drug treatment have long been the humane and logical alternative for the non-serious offenders who make up the vast majority of the prison population. Mississippi, for example, was able to reduce its prison population by offering sentencing reduction for inmates who fully utilized rehabilitative services.

Of course, prison reform cannot happen overnight. However, the issue has persisted and escaped to and from the public eye as often as the sunrises. Now that CDCR has captured the media’s attention and Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed “the new Jim Crow” has piqued the public’s interest, the time is ripe to seek incremental changes in the system. A reemphasis on rehabilitation and recidivism reduction can and will benefit the public; that is, if the prison industrial complex is willing to take the blow.

Photo Credit: mikecogh