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Putting the 'Crowd' in 'Overcrowded'

Putting the 'Crowd' in 'Overcrowded'

Last month, federal judges "ordered the creation of a three-judge panel" to address the overcrowding crisis in California's prisons. One possible solution is a cap on prison population. That could force the state to release up to 35,000 inmates.

Sounds drastic, doesn't it? It's a shame that no one saw it coming—no one except people who work in and around the criminal justice system, including Justice Fellowship, the criminal justice reform arm of Prison Fellowship.

California's prisons put the "crowd" in "overcrowded." There are 173,000 inmates in a system designed to hold about half that many. That's why Governor Schwarzenegger issued an emergency order last year transferring 8,000 inmates to private facilities in other states.

As states often do, California is trying to spend and build its way out of the problem. Last spring, the legislature agreed to spend $7.8 billion on 53,000 new beds. But if past history is any guide, this won't work. Since 1980 California has built more than 30 prisons, and the system is more overcrowded now than it was when they began.

Naturally, legislators have vowed to fight any order to release inmates. But some of the energy being used to oppose the panel should be directed at understanding and addressing the causes of California's crisis.

This crisis stems from what Berkeley Law professor Jonathan Simon calls California's "indiscriminate" use of incarceration. According to Simon, "the real problem lies not in our prisons but in our Legislature and our courthouses."

At the same time California was building all those prisons, legislators were busy amending the state's sentencing laws. It may be debatable whether the massive increase in incarceration reduced crime, but there's no debate about where the overcrowding crisis comes from—increased incarceration.

California's "three strikes" law and other "get tough" gestures made lifers out of many non-violent drug and property offenders and extended the prison terms of many others. In addition, many California inmates are in prison for technical parole violations.

In the early 1990s, Justice Fellowship predicted the disastrous effects of "three strike" laws and urged California to rethink the way it dealt with parole violations and non-violent offenders.

The warnings were drowned out by a cacophony of "get tough on crime" rhetoric. Now, the bill for shortsightedness has come due.

To make matters worse, this warehousing, as the governor acknowledged, has done nothing to prepare inmates for life after release. The governor has just appointed Justice Fellowship's Pat Nolan to a 14-member rehabilitation strike team to help the state develop policies to prepare inmates to reenter society.

Don't get me wrong. We need prisons, but for dangerous criminals who pose a threat to community safety. But for nonviolent offenders, more appropriate punishments such as restitution and community service make so much more sense—for our communities, for victims, and for the overcrowded prison system. Visit the website of Justice Fellowship for more information.


From BreakPoint®, August 24, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship