Despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s best efforts to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the early release of 10,000 inmates due to overcrowding by Dec. 31, the justices dismissed the emergency request last week and they, according to Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, ignored the efforts already under way to reduce overcrowding. The early release will include felons convicted of a variety of crimes, including violent ones.
In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, former Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, announced his stance on the issue this week: the solution is more prisons.
“The Governor is completely out of touch if he thinks that he can shift the responsibility of incarcerating and rehabilitating dangerous criminals to local authorities AGAIN,” stated Maldonado in a recent press release. “County jails are operating above 100 percent rated capacity, violence in county jails is up, and probation officers are struggling to protect themselves when simply trying to do their job. The system is busting at the seams and barely making ends meet trying to implement AB 109, and now the governor plans to dump even more felons into it.
“Any policy solution must include expanding prison capacity by building new prisons or reopening existing ones. This solution is in Gov. Brown’s hands. We need leaders who consider all options and put public safety above all other interests. This governor has proven time and again that his misguided priorities prevent him from doing the right thing by Californians.”
It’s easy to side with Maldonado — as in any equation, if a container is overflowing, the solution is to call for a bigger container, so therefore, if there are more inmates, of course the solution is more prisons. But is that the kind of society we want? Is it even a humane and diplomatic proposal to just continue with a formula that doesn’t reduce the inmate population nor act as a deterrent to committing future crimes?
There is no denying the despicable statistics and reputation the United States has made for itself. The U.S. makes up approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, but it has nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population and the highest number of people per capita incarcerated compared to any other nation at around 1 in 100 adults, according to research by the Pew Center on the States. Worse, more people are being sentenced for longer periods of time for nonviolent crimes, continuing to unnecessarily burden the system, according to a recent Pew study. We don’t have a crime problem. We have a societal problem.
And the cost — the cost is so exorbitant, it’s shameful. Over the past 20 years, the states in general have a record of allocating more of their budgets for prisons than higher education — six times more nationwide, according to the Pew Center on the States. For example, 30 years ago, California allocated 2 percent of its budget to prisons. Today, it is just a little less than 10 percent of the budget and now equivalent to the budget for higher education. But for some reason, we continue to question why the incarcerated population is the highest per capita in the world when our budgets clearly prioritize prisons over a proven deterrent — 68 percent of state prison inmates do not have a high school diploma, much less a college degree, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is safe to conclude that the higher the education, the less probability that one will end up in prison.
Resorting to more prisons, longer prison times, harsher punishment for nonviolent crimes, etc., has proven to be futile, costly and embarrassing as a world leader. While many default to the idea, if you do the crime, you do the time, the problem is, it’s not working. We are a civilized society, not a barbaric one. And just as the Supreme Court justices upheld the early release due to conditions constituting cruel and unusual punishment, a society that continues to spend more, over time, on reactionary measures than on preventive ones has only itself to blame for the resulting state of affairs. And in California, now in its 32nd day of a prisoner hunger strike over conditions in solitary confinement, we should really be questioning what our priorities are, more prisons and more prisoners or perhaps more community outreach, more schools, more programs. This path we have chosen so far is a practice in insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.