Let nonviolent prisoners out

The Times reported: “The overseer of healthcare in California state prisons asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to circumvent state lawmakers by using an emergency declaration to proceed with a $7-billion plan to build medical beds.”

Apparently, court-appointed receiver J. Clark Kelso is not aware of the governor’s failed attempt to reform the California prison system. In fact, the governor has made it worse. Now Kelso wants to give the governor another $7 billion.

The 2003-04 prison budget Schwarzenegger inherited from former Gov. Gray Davis was $5.4 billion. The prison budget for 2007-08 is more than $10 billion.

The problem is simple. Michael James is serving 25 years to life under the three-strikes law for passing a bad check for $94. Michael Schneider is serving 28 years for stealing $43 million from 57 investors.

Santos Reyes, George Anderson, Linda Susan Teague, Gary Ewing and Leandro Andrade are serving a total of 176 years, and the most serious criminal among them is Ewing. He stole three golf clubs.

How are we to fix the more serious problem of providing more beds for mentally ill prisoners when we can’t find a bed in our communities for nonviolent inmates?

There are thousands of nonviolent inmates overcrowding our prison system. But those who are bent on keeping them locked up are supposed to have the answer for finding beds for mentally ill inmates? The wrong people are making public safety decisions at a cost of billions of dollars.

The solution is simple. The California courts and the governor are too overworked to be bothered with releasing nonviolent inmates. But a new clemency system that supersedes all clemency laws in the state could be used to release a nonviolent golf club thief. Each county could be tasked with releasing those who qualify. A five-member panel could be paid for service and consist of average citizens who vote and have served on a jury in their county.

These clemency panels could free up 10,000 prison beds in less than a year without risking public safety.

But what is more likely to happen is a judge will be forced to dump inmates to relieve prison overcrowding, or the state will spend $7 billion and realize that was not the solution either.

In the time it takes the state of California to build 10,000 more prison beds, we could all be taking credit for rebuilding the lives of about 10,000 nonviolent individuals.

Allen Jones is a prison reform activist who lives in San Francisco. His full proposal for a new clemency system can be seen at

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