Today, it features a nice article on California's prison overcrowding crisis. The piece does a particularly helpful job explaining all the moving parts involved in downsizing (or not downsizing) a prison population -- the legislature, the governor, federal overseers, prison guard unions, law enforcement officers who have fears about high recidivism rates. When downsizing a prison population comes up, opponents can easily whip up fears about throwing open the prison gates and letting everyone out. But in California, at least, letting people out -- even with a crisis -- appears to be anything but easy.
Of course, there would be no prison overcrowding crisis if sensible sentencing policies had been in place all along. When thousands of people get long mandatory minimums (like California's three strikes sentences), prisons are going to fill up fast. Changing those policies involves lots of moving parts, too:
Corrections policy, meanwhile, is made not only in courtrooms and in the halls of the state Legislature but also at the ballot box. Through ballot initiatives, California voters have ordered a range of criminal justice changes over the years, ranging from “three strikes” sentencing legislation to laws cracking down on sex offenders.
In the Legislature itself, partisan bickering isn’t the only dynamic at work. The politically powerful prison guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, has tended to oppose policies that could result in any decline in the prisoner population, thus ensuring steady employment for its members.
Union leaders insist that is no longer the case. President Mike Jimenez and others speak of a “new CCPOA,” one that has embraced inmate rehabilitation, such as job training and substance abuse treatment, as a way to close the revolving prison door. At the same time, however, the union underwrites crime victims’ groups that regularly press for tougher sentences.Fears about floodgates opening and hordes of prisoners returning overnight might be overstated. And in the future, those fears can be avoided entirely with smarter sentencing policies that treat prisons as what they are: rare commodities.