Calif. Leaders Urged to Reform Costly Prison System

The leader of a Christian organization dedicated to criminal justice reform is urging California's "irresponsible leaders" to pull the state's prisons out of the vicious cycle they've been in over the past decade or two.

"Even 'tough on crime' Texas has made dramatic changes that will reduce their prison population by punishing many offenders in the community, where they have access to treatment programs, and are close to their families and work," noted Prison Fellowship Vice President Pat Nolan, who leads Justice Fellowship, Prison Fellowship's public policy arm.

"California on the other hand is going in the opposite direction," he added in a commentary that appeared this week in the Huffington Post.

In total, California spends $10 billion a year on its prison system, which – as NPR's Laura Sullivan recently pointed out – was once a model for states to follow but now is a model of what to avoid.

To keep one inmate locked in jail, the state now requires around $46,000 each year – not including substance abuse treatment, mental health programs, educational or vocational training.

To reduce its $26.3 billion budget deficit, the state of California has proposed a cut of $1.2 billion in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation budget.

But according to Nolan, significant reforms of department have so far been off the table, and to date the trend in California has been to eliminate drug treatment programs, sex offender counseling, "and virtually every program which prepares inmates to live healthy, productive lives after they are released."

"These cuts allow the prisons to keep the maximum number of inmates incarcerated, but with no programs to occupy their time productively. Why? It certainly isn't making us safer," Nolan added.

Furthermore, in 2006, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the state prison system had reached "a crisis point," the governor called for the construction of at least two more prisons and the addition of thousands of beds in existing facilities to deal with what he called "dangerously overcrowded" prisons.

At the time, California was housing more than 171,000 inmates and had the highest recidivism rate in the nation, with 70 percent of parolees returning to prison after their release.

"As California's irresponsible leaders have reduced the Golden State to issuing IOU's, one would think they would be looking to the prison budget as a place to save money," noted Nolan this week.

But as Nolan and other experts have noted, many of the cuts California has made has been to health care and other programs that help rehabilitate inmates and keep them from coming back to prison.

And as a result, more parolees are returning – many of which for violating their parole on technical terms, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer – and prisons continue to be overcrowded.

 Meanwhile, in states like Texas, reforms have been made to cut down on the number of returning inmates, thus creating a positive cycle that allows more money to be saved and more to be directed to programs that will continue to bring down the number of people incarcerated.

"These reforms have allowed Texas to scrap plans to build three more prisons, saving hundreds of millions of dollars," Nolan noted. "Texas is investing one-third of the savings into these community alternative punishments and treatment. The other two-thirds will go to roads, hospitals and schools."

"[I]ntelligent policies," such as those in Texas, "keep the public safe while also saving the taxpayers significant dollars," Nolan added. "Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina have also reduced their prison population while reducing their crime rates."

"It's time for California to follow suit," he concluded.

Aside from California, Nolan and his organization say America as a whole is in need of significant intervention when it comes to the prison system.

"The soaring costs of imprisonment are hindering spending on other vital programs-such as schools, basic health care for children and core community services," Justice Fellowship reports.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Americans will spend $62 billion this year to incarcerate their fellow citizens and more than half of the 700,000 inmates who will be released will be re-incarcerated within three years unless there is significant intervention.

Since it was founded in 1983 by evangelical leader Chuck Colson, Justice Fellowship has sought to change America's criminal justice system at every level so that it reflects the principles of restorative justice, which requires the system to do more than warehouse offenders.

"Restorative justice teaches that crime harms victims, communities, and offenders," the organization states. "We promote a system that effectively repairs these injuries and brings greater peace and security to lives and communities."

Other restorative justice organizations include Just Alternatives, Justice and Mercy, the Victim Offender Mediation Association, and Awana Lifeline.