Monday, May 23, 2011

Advice to the States: Don't Be the Next California

It's old news by now:  states are coping with small budgets and big, expensive prison systems.  How to deal?

If you're California, the federal courts have just answered that question for you.  

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order that the state should release 46,000 of its prisoners to restore constitutional conditions to its prisons.  California's notoriously overcrowded prison system has resulted in poor medical care for the confined -- care so poor that it violates the Constitution.  

How did California get in this mess?  The state's three strikes law played a significant role.  It sent thousands to prison for stretches of 25 years to life.  As more prisoners came in, stayed longer, weren't allowed parole, and got older and sicker, the prison bill got bigger and bigger.  California's budget hasn't.  Voila.  Prison crisis.  It took a federal court order (now upheld by the Supreme Court) to fix a constitutional violation that never should have arisen.

All of this was avoidable.  If there had been better sentencing policies in place, this might never have happened (or at least not gotten so bad). California may not have been able to avert this crisis, but it can prevent another one in the future by passing smarter sentencing laws and repealing its mandatory minimums.

Other states are grappling with their own prison and budget crises.  Our advice:  don't be like California.

In West Virginia, this editorial shows that you don't need a huge number of prisoners to have a prison crisis. and it criticizes lawmakers for failing to downsize and save money:
The number of West Virginians locked in steel cages has more than quadrupled, from 1,500 in the 1980s to 6,849 today -- and projections foresee 10,000 confined by 2017. ...

First, lawmakers failed to make pseudoephedrine a prescription-only medication, which would end meth labs using over-the-counter pills. [Exactly the solution posed in the Frontline piece we recently blogged on.]
Second, they failed to pass a bill to move low-risk, nonviolent offenders into cheaper work camps and work-release centers.
Third, they failed to shorten several mandatory prison sentences that are longer than the U.S. average.
Why not just get rid of mandatory prison sentences altogether?  Mandatory time in means mandatory money going out -- of state coffers.

Undeniably, states max out prison space when they put too many people in for too long.  Instead of turning off the spigot, many states try to solve the problem at the back end, when people get out.  For example, New Jersey Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman bemoans the fact that her state repealed a provision letting inmates out 6 months early to get supervision and other assistance so that they wouldn't return to prison.  While this certainly sounds like a worthwhile provision, and both front and back-end reforms are necessary to return prisons to a manageable size, it's at the front end where the biggest bang for the buck can and should be seen.

Just ask California.