Prison insanity

Pub date May 22, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The dumbest, most expensive, and least effective solution to crime is to build more prisons. We have about 20 years of empirical data to prove that, right in California. Yet the state legislature and the governor have agreed to spend $8 billion, mostly in new bond money, to expand the bloated state prison system.

California currently locks up 173,000 people. Texas, that great liberal bastion of criminal coddling, only has 152,000 inmates. It’s staggering — and the billions this state has spent on cell blocks have had no measurable impact on the crime rate.

In fact, California has the highest prison return rate in the nation: seven in 10 people released from state prisons wind up behind bars again. The state’s ridiculously tough parole laws allow offenders to be locked up again for minor, harmless infractions.

The entire state corrections system is in such bad shape that the federal courts have threatened to throw it into receivership if some of the more glaring problems aren’t addressed. That’s why this package was rushed through without adequate debate and why so many Democrats went along with it.

But the bill that the legislature passed does nothing to address those problems.

The centerpiece of the measure is an ambitious, very expensive plan to build 53,000 new prison beds over the next five years. The sad fact is that the construction boom won’t do much of anything to solve the overcrowding problem: like freeways, prisons fill up as fast as they are built. So in five years, the state will have another 50,000 inmates, and the prisons will still be overcrowded.

And of course, nowhere in the deal is there any proposal for how the state will find the extra money to pay the operating costs of all these new prison facilities. Instead, the prison budget will continue to crowd out social programs (and the bonds will make it harder to pass a high-speed rail bond this fall).

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and State Senate President Don Perata made statements highly critical of the plan, and Núñez demanded that the governor resolve a lot of the lingering problems before the construction begins. But they both voted for the bill. (One of the few who didn’t was Sen. Carole Migden, to her great credit.)

The Democrats in the legislature need to go back and start dismantling this bill before it’s too late — and need to take up serious sentencing reform. If they won’t, activists ought to look at a November ballot measure. We don’t want to see a federal takeover either — but anything would be better than this mess. *