Contempt for Prison Reform

California's prison overcrowding dilemma is one of the state's most critical issues and it remains below the radar screen of importance for many.
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Former Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole once opined there is no people's Political Action Committee. In other words, the poor do not provide large campaign contributions and have their interests represented by lobbyists on Capitol Hill or Sacramento.

If we can agree those with influence have a considerable political advantage over the poor, imagine what it is like for the incarcerated. But after 20-plus years of sounding the clarion call for being tough on crime, the thought of doing something humane for those on the bottom of the honor scale seems unfathomable. Such talk is easily dismissed as nothing more than the Pollyannaish cries of bleeding heart liberals more concerned with prisoner's rights than those of the victims.

I suspect this is how the vast majority of Californians feel, but is that in the best longterm interest of the state? California's prison overcrowding dilemma is one of the state's most critical issues and it remains below the radar screen of importance for many.

The state corrections system wastes billions of dollars annually, but there is no massive outcry to curb that fiscal irresponsibility. It does not focus on rehabilitation; rather it feeds the public's primordial yearnings for revenge, consistently releasing parolees ill-equipped for society. The use of mandatory sentencing guidelines, such as "Three Strikes" laws, ties the hands of judges, fueling a one-size-fits-all system.

The result: The Legislature and governor recently proposed more of the same by spending $7.8 billion primarily on new prison construction. A federal judge blocked the legislation and is now considering what can only be deemed as the best decisions among a series of bad choices by possibly issuing an early release for inmates near the end of their sentences.

The cities they matriculate into most likely will be unable to provide the wrap-around services needed to increase the possibility of success.

If this were any other issue, there would be a bipartisan coalition bemoaning the ineffectual nature of government. What's more, when we remove the tough talk and the wasteful government spending, public safety is not enhanced.

If there is only the political will to continue down the failing path of building more prisons, offering little in the way of rehabilitation, and touting the nation's highest recidivism rate, are we acting in a manner akin to the barbarism of those we claim we must protect society from?

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, recently called the possibility of early release "not an option because it will jeopardize public safety." Why isn't the parole system, as it currently stands, not a threat to public safety? Any other social program than ran as miserably as corrections, wasting half as much of taxpayers' money, would not be tolerated.

The one-size-fits-all policies were rooted in politicians taking the most extreme cases and making those the standard bearer for the group. I remember when former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown stood with the parents of Polly Klaas in opposition to Proposition 66 -- which would have required the third felony to be a violent or serious crime to qualify under "Three Strikes" laws -- that he did not want convicted murder Richard Allen Davis back on the streets.

Who does? But such scare tactics are politically successful.

No one serious about this issue wants violent criminals released. Didn't lawmakers assure us that we could deal with the wretched by simply locking them up and throwing away the key? Well, we can't.

Bad public policy should not receive a pass because we find those in question reprehensible. Personal contempt cannot blind us to the fact that we are wasting the taxpayers' money on a failed policy that plays disproportionately on our fears, which does not ensure public safety.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist.
E-mail him at or leave a message at (510) 208-6417

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