For a state that’s supposed to be a progressive leader, California sure does like to build prisons, lots of them too. Thirteen prison and jail expansion projects are currently in progress, with more coming, all due to AB 900 in 2007 which authorized over $7.4 billion for construction and expansion in California’s extensive penal system.
This is happening at a time when California’s finances are in perilous shape. That $7.4 billion will be financed by bonds. This means the final cost will be far higher, as interest will be paid and the payments will continue for years into the future. This makes no sense for a state which is scrambling unsuccessfully to keep its budget balanced. Further, many other states are closing prisons or considering do so. So, California is the outlier, continuing to fund more prisons at a time when other states are successfully implementing alternative methods.
Shouldn’t the real goal of prison be to ensure people don’t return? I’ve been clean and sober for quite a while and have more than a few ex-con friends who turned their lives around. This is a win for everyone. In financial terms, someone who was costing the state money by being incarcerated is now a taxpayer, contributing money. In human terms, someone who was a danger to society no longer is. The majority of those in prison committed their crimes while on alcohol or drugs or to get money for drugs. Instead of throwing them away for decades on a second or third strike (which costs the state $47,000 a year per inmate), we need to find genuinely effective ways for treating addicts and alcoholics. Once they stop using, they generally stop going to prison.
California’s prison system is dysfunctional and the Supreme Court has ordered it to cut overcrowding from 200% to 133% in two years. The state is complying by transferring inmates out of state, to county or local facilities, or to private prisons. While this may temporarily satisfy the Supreme Court, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem of too many inmates, nor does it cut costs.
We do of course have a thriving prison-industrial complex, with lots of players making money off it. Sure, California prison guards are well-paid. But even with that and a bad economy, there is a shortage of guards. A street cop will at least see a few smiling faces each day and carries a gun for protection. California correctional peace officers probably face unremitting hostility and are generally unarmed (so the weapon can’t be taken from them). It’s not surprising that not many want the job. It might even be harder than being a cop. If the prisons were at 100% capacity rather than 200%, their jobs would likely be easier.
The best way to reduce the prison population, as California Progress Report details, is by repealing Three Strikes, releasing elderly inmates who can barely hobble across the floor much let alone hurt someone, and reducing sentences or providing alternatives to incarceration for those convicted of non-violent crimes, especially mothers.
California has a behemoth prison system which it cannot afford and which does little good. It needs to be reformed.