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Originally published Monday, August 17, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Swelling prison populations hamper state governments

In a season of deep deficits and alarming program cuts, writes columnist Neal Peirce, why aren't states seriously focused on reducing their swelling prison populations?

Syndicated columnist

In a season of deep deficits and alarming program cuts, why aren't states seriously focused on reducing their swelling prison populations?

Nationally, the United States is the world's top incarcerator with about 2.3 million people behind bars. California's case is extreme — but illustrative. In the mid-1970s, it was jailing 20,000 offenders. Today the total is 168,000 inmates — an increase of 840 percent.

What can trigger change? Do we have to remain chained to the same politics that drove the prison explosion — "law-and-order" rhetoric, "three strikes and you're out" laws, and throwing ever more minor drug offenders behind bars?

Just check California, now struggling to cut back its budget by a staggering $26.3 billion. In 1999, its prison system cost an already massive $4 billion to operate. Now, with more prisoners, more penitentiaries, more guards, more health costs, the budget figure has topped $10 billion.

And the money is producing more horrors than cures. After 14 years of lawsuits by inmates alleging cruel and unusual punishment, a three-judge federal court panel on Aug. 4 ordered California to reduce its prisoner roll by 43,000 inmates over the next two years.

The state, the judges wrote shortly before a major riot at a prison in Chino, has created a "criminogenic" system that actually pushes prisoners and parolees to more crimes through "appalling," "horrific" prison conditions.

California's fiscal crisis has already led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders to agree to cut $1.2 billion from the prison budget. They haven't agreed how, though discussion includes reducing prison rolls by up to 37,000 through early releases and revised parole practices.

Already, California's increasingly ideological Republicans are opposed; Assembly Leader Sam Blakeslee talks darkly of "letting out some very dangerous criminals onto our streets and into our neighborhoods. California's powerful "prison-industrial complex" is also fighting the plan.

Last autumn, the reformist Drug Policy Alliance Network and its allies put a Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act on the ballot. Supported by a wide range of treatment officials and former high-ranking corrections officials, it focused on non-prison treatment for nonviolent drug offenders plus good-time credits for inmates and fewer arrests of parolees for technical violations. California's high recidivism rates would be curbed and billions in new prison construction forestalled, the advocates claimed.

But California's prison guards union (with 2,000-plus members earning over $100,000 a year) didn't like the idea of fewer inmates (and jobs). So with other pro-prison forces, it mounted a $3.5 million television advertising campaign in opposition. California's political establishment fell into line including Schwarzenegger and former governors such as present Attorney General Jerry Brown (a likely 2010 gubernatorial candidate). The measure lost resoundingly.

In contrast to California's folly, New York state has actually reduced its prison rolls by 10,000 in the last decade. How? By relying heavily on the types of alternative treatment for nonviolent offenders that California spurns. And just this year, New York finally repealed the infamous "Rockefeller drug laws" that helped swell its prisons with minor offenders serving long terms.

Now California reformers are pushing a "People's Budget Fix" formula they say would save at least $12 billion over the next five years. It includes a claimed $5.5 billion through community-based addiction treatment for minor drug offenses (proposed by the Drug Policy Alliance Network).

Another $1 billion a year, it's claimed, could be saved by limiting three-strikes penalties to violent crimes (not just shoplifting or simple drug possession). Emptying Death Row by converting California's current capital sentences to life without possibility of parole — an American Civil Liberties Union proposal — would reportedly save $1 billion over five years. Another $1 billion, it's claimed, would come from closing California's dysfunctional youth prisons and shifting responsibility to local programs with successful track records.

Such rational reforms — increasingly echoed in states nationally as the fiscal grinder minces budgets — were needed long before the current recession. They'll be important long afterward.

When, as a society, we take these rational steps, we'll not just save dollars. We'll also start to spare the horrendous human waste and harm to families of knee-jerk law-and-orderism that can't discern between deep and serious criminal behavior and the missteps, usually in youthful years, that most societies deal with far more calmly — and effectively.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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