Prison Realignment Creates an Opportunity

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Anyone who thinks Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison realignment effort was driven by an overriding desire to reform California’s correctional system, hasn’t been paying enough attention to the state’s budget numbers.

But unintended consequences aren’t always a bad thing, which means that some good may come out of the state’s money woes.

While the 2012-13 budget statement dutifully reports that the “successful implementation of the reform of the state’s incarceration system is a key priority of the Administration,” a lot depends on what your definition of “reform” is.

There’s not much doubt how Brown and his green-eyeshade brigade see it. Sending thousands of low-level, non-violent offenders to county jail instead of state prison is a financial winner, at least for the state. California’s state prison population is slated by drop by some 18,000 by the end of the next budget year, saving the state $1.1 billion.

That doesn’t count savings from prisons and other correction facilities that won’t have to be built or from the plan to shut down all the state youth prisons and let counties deal with all new juvenile offenders beginning next January.

But moving many of those low-end crooks out of overcrowded state facilities in the state’s hinterlands and putting them in county lockups closer to family and friends in their own community might provide an ongoing connection and lifeline back into the real world. And since most of these county inmates are looking at relatively short time, there’s that light at the end of the tunnel for them to focus on.

And keeping rookie offenders out of state prisons that are all-too-often graduate schools in advanced lawbreaking isn’t a bad thing, either

Earlier this month, state Corrections Secretary Matt Cate suggested that he’d like to see prisons where inmates have things like video games and cable TV, privileges that would last as long as they obeyed the rules.

Last weekend, about 700 people from the Occupy 4 Prisoners movement demonstrated outside San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, calling for an end to the death penalty, solitary confinement and three-strikes laws.

Although you’ll get plenty of complaints from the bread-and-water, killing-is-too-good-for-them crowd, there’s something to be said for those attitudes.

State prisons shouldn’t be for punishment. What they should be for is keeping people who have proven that they’re unwilling or unable to live by society’s rules away from that society. Let inmates have cable or Playstations or soft mattresses on their bunks. Just keep the locks on the gates.

But none of that really works when you’re mixing forgers, con artists, petty drug dealers and burglars doing 18-month stints with the rapists, murderers, child molesters and armed robbers who are in for a lot longer.

While plenty of these petty criminals are frequent fliers who will end up doing life in prison on the installment plan, most people – Three Strikes devotees notwithstanding – recognize that there’s a difference between someone who gets out of prison and writes another check and someone who walks out the prison door and gets a new gun.

No one’s channeling Pollyanna here. By definition, there are bad people in prison and even the worst of the worst likely started out as a low-level offender. Some of the folks now headed for county jail are just making a brief stop on their way to serious time at San Quentin, Folsom or Pelican Bay.

But others aren’t. The chance to serve their sentences close to home might, just might, make it easier for them to, as the saying goes, pay their debt to society and make something of the rest of their lives.

Realignment is a huge shift in the way California handles its prison population. But while money was the driving force behind the effort, the change provides the state and counties with a unique chance to experiment and see if they can slow the revolving door that brings all too many inmates back into the prison system.

There are no guarantees. But if, as many politicians believe, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, here’s a chance to deal with the state’s long-running prison crisis. Don’t waste it.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

 

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