Prisons Are Not Enough

On July 4 Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill authorizing the construction of a mammoth, 2,248-bed maximum-security prison just north of Bakersfield. The bill, he said, would “help to ensure that California remains a state that demands safety for its citizens and justice from its criminals.”

However, just building new prisons has little correlation with public safety and does nothing to reduce the astronomical costs of incarcerating its 160,000 prisoners.

Prisons don’t lock up most offenders and throw away the key. Even with the three-strikes law increasing many sentences, the state’s prisons release about 90,000 people each year into California communities with virtually no follow-up--one reason why roughly two-thirds of state inmates paroled this year are likely to return to prison.

Today, the Assembly Appropriations Committee considers a bill that would aid both safety and justice. The measure, by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), would require the state Department of Corrections to conduct a public study of cost-effective alternatives to prison-building. Taxpayers currently pay $21,000 a year to imprison each of California’s 59,000 nonviolent drug offenders. Most of these drug offenders are addicts who receive no intensive substance abuse treatment in prison and tend to commit crimes again, cycling in and out of prison for decades. Polanco’s bill would require the state Corrections Department to study alternatives used in other states, like requiring the offenders to get into treatment, get jobs and pay part of their salaries back to the state to fund the drug treatment programs they attend.


Next week, the Assembly Public Safety Committee will consider a related bill that would prod the Corrections Department to think more creatively. The bill, authored by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), would revise the state’s penal code to declare that the purpose of prisons is “prevention, rehabilitation and punishment.” Two decades ago, the state removed the term “rehabilitation” from its penal code, making punishment the sole official purpose of its prisons. If prisoners are to reenter society, punishment alone is not enough.

Despite a near-tripling in the number of state prisons since 1980, California prisons are overcrowded again, and voters have rejected bond measures that would have kept the prison-building boom rolling. An exploration of ways to serve justice with fewer new cells is a sensible public safety policy.