Termination of the Terminator’s Plan
A few months ago, I wrote about Governor Schwarzenegger's plan to move thousands of California state inmates to other states in an attempt to ease overcrowding. Luckily, a state judge blocked the attempt earlier this month on the grounds that prison overcrowding is not covered by California Emergency Services Act.
It's not that I want prisons to be overcrowded; rather, it's that simply moving prisoners from one state to another, far away from their families and friends, suffocating another state's system just to make room for more prisoners in California, is not the answer. Despite the technical basis for the court's decision, if it stands, the Governor will have to find another, more intelligent, more sustainable solution to California's problem. Corrections officials had hoped originally that enough inmates would volunteer to be sent as far away as Indiana and Tennessee; not surprisingly, few inmates stepped forward.
To be sure, California's prisons, like those throughout the country, are full beyond capacity. As I wrote in November, "there are more than 16,000 inmates sleeping in gyms and classrooms, 1,500 in triple-decker bunks, and tens of thousands more without meaningful access to education or job-training programs. Over the last 25 years, California's prison population has exploded by more than 500% and added 21 new penitentiaries. Despite this blighted boon, the Golden State shows no signs of slowing down: in 2011, the prison population is projected to be close to 200,000."
Transporting inmates to other states is a quick-fix solution that fails to address more important issues: why has California's prison population exploded (along with the entire country's), disproportionately and often contrary to the crime rate? How can the state help improve the communities from which many inmates come economically and educationally? Do there exist effective and comprehensive drug, counseling, and job-training programs to reduce recidivism as prisoners reenter their communities? Can the state take complete control of the prison-building business, moving it away from the private, profit-driven sector, thereby lessening the disturbing connection between big business and incarceration? If the state chose not to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders, sought alternatives to incarceration for drug and petty offenses, placed far less emphasis on arrest numbers when assessing police officers' job performances, and gathered the resources used to fight the drug war and expand the prison industrial complex and instead reinvested them into improving public schools and supporting small businesses, what effect would that have on the state's crime rate, the size of the prison population, and the health of lower-income communities? Why doesn't the state give judges greater discretion and flexibility in sentencing determinations?
Although Schwarzenegger has asked lawmakers to review sentencing laws, he has simultaneously proposed a somewhat paradoxical solution to prison overcrowding: earmarking $11 billion for a prison and jail-building program. With a prison population that has risen steadily over the past 30 years (regardless of the rise or fall of crime rates), now totaling 2.3 million people and still heading skyward (in California it is almost 200,000), and a failed drug war which has stuffed our jail cells with too many drug offenders, the solution is not building more prisons. That has been the solution for three decades, and all it has done is tear families apart and place the United States atop the world in incarceration rates.
It is time for a total recall of the Governor's plan to re-distribute the prison population nationwide, particularly given the collateral damage it would cause to inmates and their families, and instead for the Governor to develop a more substantial, long-term, consistent solution to his state's overcrowded prisons, one that could become a model for the states to reduce permanently both their overall prison populations and their rates of incarceration.