How do you reconcile a conservative philosophy that says government is bad and taxes should be cut, and at the same time advocates policies that put lots and lots of people in jail for all kinds of things? Well, you can’t.
The original idea for California’s Three Strikes law was sound: most
violence is committed by a very few people and if you can identify and
imprison those people, you can make the rest of us much, much safer. But
the conservatives managed to turn this sound idea into an initiative
that invites prosecutors to decide to prosecute people under this law for any
serious crime, violent or not, and technical or not, as long as they have two priors. So people who, for example, committed a
crime as a child, then “copped a plea” to avoid risking a serious conviction thirty years
prior, can now be sent to prison for life.
As a result, today California has more than 170,000 people in prisons designed to hold about half as many. One out of every five prisoners in California is serving a life sentence. In California defendants have received, for example, a life sentence for stealing a piece of pizza, a life sentence for stealing three tracksuits, a life sentence for stealing a 50-cent pack of doughnuts, a life sentence for possessing .03 grams of drugs, a life sentence for stalking and a life sentence for stealing golf clubs. But when you put so many people in prisons that have their budgets cut year after year what you can’t get is sufficient medical care or sufficient living space.
So a federal court has taken a look at California’s policies of putting
more and more people into jail for longer and longer sentences for more
and more things, while at the same time cutting budgets for medical
care. The court found that this constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment. From the article,
“California’s prison system is operating at 190 percent of its design capacity of
79,828 inmates, and the judges said the state must devise an inmate
reduction plan within 45 days, after which a remedial order will be
. . . “The convergence of tough-on-crime policies and an unwillingness to expend the necessary funds to support the population growth has brought California’s prisons to the breaking point,” the judges said.”
At Calitics David Dayen writes,
This is a policy failure driven by a political failure, a cowardly
series of actions that arises from a broken system of government. … politicians have played on people’s fears for 30 years and, faced with
the tragedy they created, delayed and procrastinated until it became so
torturous that the courts had to step in. From the three-strikes law
to the 1,000 sentencing laws passed by the Legislature, all increasing
sentences, nobody comes out looking good in this failure of leadership.
Given the fiscal mess our state is in now is the time for appropriate reform of all institutions. Let’s make it right, let’s make it work and let’s make it just. That is a progressive approach.
With the recent explosion of violence in our prisons, it’s little wonder that the courts have ordered the release of thousands of prisoners in the over=crowded prisons in our state. We’ve crammed too many ill-behaved people into facilities intended for less than half the current prison population. It can’t come as a surprise to anyone that it’s all come crashing down.
We’ve got to buck up to the fact that we’re putting too many people into prison for too long. The real bad actors belong there and should stay until hell freezes over, but we’re throwing mentally ill and substance abusers into the mix when they don’t belong there. We refuse to let the old, decrepit and dying out a minute before their terms are up, if at all, so we’re going to be paying a fortune for their medical care now that the federal courts have ordered it.
This system is so rotten that it is failing of its own weight. We have the highest recidivism rate in the country, at 75% and continue to throw people into the brig without any effort to try to rehabilitate them so they don’t return over and over again.
So who is going to show the courage to bring sanity to our criminal justice system? We’re OK to deplete the resources to prevent juveniles from growing into real criminals, but don’t want to try to fix the system once they make it into the big leagues of crime and punishment.
The answer: Release the old and decrepit into less costly treatment;make three strikes for violent criminals (and throw away the key) and treat the non-violent mentally ill and substance abusers in less expensive and more effective programs. Warehousing doesn’t work and the courts are making it clear they won’t let us continuing doing it anyway.
And let’s start ignoring the “tough guys” who want to incarcerate everyone without regard to cost, treatment or rehabilitation. Bottom line: We simply can’t afford it anymore. Besides, it’s wrong and doesn’t work. What more do we need to know?