Fixing California's Broken Prison System

Fixing California's Broken Prison System
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Oh, to have November again! Just a few short months ago, California had the opportunity to usher in prison overcrowding solutions and recidivism-reduction programs that would have reduced prison spending by at least $2.5 billion. That proposal failed on the ballot, thanks to the pro-prison lobby and the nearly $3.5 million that prison guards and their allies spent on misleading TV spots.

Now it's February, the prison population remains perilously high, and the state faces a likely population cap. According to a tentative ruling issued on Monday, the federal three judge panel overseeing California's unconstitutionally inadequate prisons has found overcrowding to be the primary underlying problem and that the state must address it.

California has got to get it together. Legislative inaction led to this crisis - and it's the duty of the Legislature to pave the way out. Even the federal panel has said it wants the state to identify the best way out of this overcrowding mess.

It's time California revisited the expert-recommended proposals that would have become law under the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (Proposition 5).

First, divert more nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of incarceration - both from court and from parole - and stabilize funding. California has extensive experience with diversion under Proposition 36, a highly successful program passed by 61 percent of voters in 2000. In just seven years, Prop. 36 has graduated 84,000 people, saved taxpayers nearly $2 billion and, according to independent UCLA evaluations, reduced recidivism.

Second, emphasize recidivism-reduction programming and encourage participation through good time credits. California's prison system currently provides virtually no meaningful rehabilitation or treatment services behind bars. The Inspector General found that the little drug treatment provided behind bars is so poorly administered that it may do more harm than good; he called it a "billion dollar boondoggle." Prop. 5 would have improved recidivism-reduction programs and increased good time credit opportunities.

Third, reduce the number of offenders under long-term parole supervision and stop sending technical violators back to prison (particularly where it comes to drug-addicted parolees). Almost all of the over 10,000 offenders released from prison in California each month are placed on parole for three years. During that time, 70 percent are returned to prison - twice as many as the national average. Prop. 5 would have required local sanctions for some nonviolent parolees and allowed well-behaved nonviolent parolees to earn their way off of parole supervision.

These recommendations didn't stop being good ones in November. They continue to appear in every serious proposal to reform California's broken prison system, including the governor's. His proposal, which was approved by the Legislature in January as AB 8, would have made significant changes to sentencing, good time credits and the parole system. Though AB 8 was vetoed as part of a larger budget package last month, the proposal should be a part of any 2009-10 budget approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

California must not wait any longer. There's no mystery about what solving the prison crisis will take. All that's lacking is the political will.

Daniel Abrahamson is the director of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, and a proponent of California's Proposition 5 (Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act).

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