California's Prison System Lags Behind

Policymakers in some very conservative places are modeCating their approach to crime and punishment, but in California, which imprisons more people than any other state, politicians still think more prisons are better.

On June 22, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, signed legislation passed overwhelmingly by Texas' Republican-controlled House and Senate to divert thousands of low-level drug offenders from prison into treatment. Texas is one of the toughest states in the nation when it comes to criminal justice policy. The Lone Star State's prison population is second only to that of California. One in 10 prisoners incarcerated nationally is incarcerated in Texas, and one out of every 21 Texans is under the control of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The new law will save taxpayers $115 over the next five years.

Texas is far from the only state sensibly re-examining its imprisonment binge under growing pressure to cut prison spending. Many of them are governed by Republicans. For example:

--In December, Michigan Gov. John Engler signed watershed legislation abolishing most of that state's mandatory sentencing laws and returning discretion to judges. The reform saved Michigan taxpayers $43 million this year alone, money that can go into reducing cuts to education and health care.

--When Gov. Mike Foster of Louisiana signed legislation reforming his state's mandatory sentencing laws and returning discretion on non-violent drug offenses to judges, he stated, "There's nothing worse than having a state that is tops in incarceration. We went a long way toward curing that."

--Ohio Gov. Bob Taft carefully "scrubbed" his state's prison population through revised sentencing and parole guidelines and by creating new treatment programs and other alternatives to incarceration. While prison populations in other Midwest states increased by nearly 4 percent between 1998 and 2000, Ohio's prison population declined by nearly 6 percent, allowing the state to close two of its prisons and save millions annually.

Policymakers are finding support for such changes from a public that, across party affiliation, is disappointed with the war on drugs and supportive of diverting non-violent offenders into treatment instead of prison. In a poll conducted by Hart and Associates last year, three-quarters of Americans approved of sentencing nonviolent offenders to probation instead of imprisonment. More than two-thirds of Republicans favored treatment and probation for non-violent offenses, while a majority of Republicans favored "tougher approaches to the causes of crime," over the policies of the past. In December 2001, four times as many Californians surveyed in a Field Poll reported that they preferred to reduce the state's prison budget rather than cut higher education.

Republicans are hardly soft on crime. "I have no problem with putting people in jail," says Republican Rep. Mike Kowall, former chair of Michigan's Criminal Justice Committee. "I consider myself to the right of Attila the Hun. This just gets back to common-sense approaches to crime rather than just locking them up and throwing away the key."

The budget proposal currently being debated by the California Senate includes just such common sense proposals. The Senate has painstakingly identified low-risk offenders for placement in drug treatment, mental health programs, educational programming, vocational training and drug court as alternatives to imprisoning non-violent inmates. Even after the cost of the new treatment and education programs are accounted for, the state would save over $120 million next fiscal year by adopting these reforms.

So it's not too late for California to become part of the "smart on crime" trend. As the debate heats up over tax increases and service cuts, policymakers should thoughtfully trim the corrections budget and put low-risk offenders under treatment and supervision, instead of in counterproductive prisons. If they can do it in Texas, you can certainly do it in California.

Vincent Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization in Washington, D.C.

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