Saturday, January 03, 2009

Prison Reform

The New York Times published a very sensible editorial on December 31, 2008, one which I missed the first time around. Fortunately, a Kossack diarist didn't, for which I am grateful.

The editorial noted and praised Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) for his bringing to national attention the enormous number of people in prison in this country (the "mass incarceration"), many for non-violent and victimless crimes such as drug related offenses. One part of the editorial particularly struck me:

Mr. Webb says he intends to introduce legislation to create a national commission to investigate these issues. With Barack Obama in the White House, and strong Democratic majorities in Congress, the political climate should be more favorable than it has been in years. And the economic downturn should make both federal and state lawmakers receptive to the idea of reforming a prison system that is as wasteful as it is inhumane.

Prison reform resonates a great deal in California, especially since the state's prison system and its inability to provide decent medical care for its inmates is currently in the hands of a federal receiver appointed as a result of a federal lawsuit against the state. That federal receiver wants the state to spend $8 billion to cure the intolerable situation, money the state just doesn't have right now.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest budget proposal includes a section addressing the issue. From yesterday's Sacramento Bee:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest budget proposal would reduce by tens of thousands the number of criminals behind bars and under community supervision.

Parole would be eliminated for all nonserious, nonviolent and non-sex offenders. The proposal would cut the parole population by about 65,000 by June 30, 2010, or more than half of the Christmas Eve count of 123,144.

At the same time, the corrections plan calls for increasing good-time credits for inmates who obey the rules and complete rehabilitation programs. Combined with the new parole policies that would result in fewer violators forced back into custody, the proposal would reduce the prison population by 15,000 by June 30, 2010. It stood at 171,542 on Dec. 24.

The plan is very close to the one included in the budget submitted by the Democratic controlled legislature, but the governor vetoed that budget for reasons unconnected to the prison reform section. He apparently was impressed enough to include the measure in his own plan, and for that he deserves some praise. The motive may be to save the state money, but the result would be to free many people who should not be in prison for minor parole violations, or who should not be in prison in the first place.

And, just as important, the state would not have to continue to build new prisons to adequately house the population which continues to grow because of antiquated and misguided policies based on years of fear-mongering "law and order" laments.

The correctional officer's union (probably the most powerful union in the state) has already damned the proposal, obviously fearing a loss of jobs (and power), but it's clear that union leaders haven't considered the impact less crowded prisons would have on their members' safety. This is one time the union should step back and realize that their interests and the state's are not really at odds.

Sen. Webb's proposal for a national commission to study the nation's prison system is a sound one, and it will hopefully result in more rational and humane ways of treating all offenders, especially those guilty of nothing more than possession of drugs for personal use. In the mean time, however, given the budget problems of California, Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal is a timely one.

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