State has too many people in prison

Most of us have heard that a federal court mandate is just around the corner requiring California to release as many as 43,000 of its about 160,000 inmates. What is the reason for the mandate? Because most of the prisons are housing almost double the number of people they were designed and built for, and there eventually comes a constitutional limit to the overcrowded conditions that we can or should force people to live in. Imagine almost 200 prisoners with ethnic and racial rivalries triple-bunked in hot weather in barracks designed for 100. That does not serve anyone’s legitimate interests.

California’s governor is right when he says that the state’s prison system is “collapsing under its own weight.” But because neither the governor nor the legislature has done anything to rectify this problem, it has been left to the courts. Many politicians, in trying to appear “tough on crime,” are spreading fear that this could cause imminent threats to our safety if this number of people were to be released. But the facts show that is all it is: fear-mongering.

Some politicians intentionally use fear to manipulate the voters and/or to promote their private interests. I am told that one of the most well-known political advisors who did this had a motto framed and hanging on his office wall that said “Keep ‘Em Scared.” That may be good politics, but it makes for rotten government. So gather the evidence yourself, and be cynical about people who deal in fear.

The evidence shows that, even dealing with the possible release of 43,000 inmates, there is simply no way that anyone who is a threat to our safety would ever even be considered to be set free. So relax, people like Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, Richard Ramirez and other murderers, robbers and rapists will safely stay where they are. You can count on it.

The reason for the overcrowding is that today we literally have tens of thousands of people in prison who simply should not be there. For example, and as we have discussed before in this column, right now there are literally thousands of people in prison who did nothing but smoke marijuana. For whatever reason, they were in prison and then released on parole, always with the condition that they use no form of illicit drug. Then, for one reason or another, they smoked marijuana, which is detectable by urinalysis testing for about a month after use. Thereafter, they either fail to show up to take their tests, or they do show up and test positive, and back to prison they go.

I am not discussing the stupidity of their smoking marijuana under these circumstances, but many of them had again found employment and were putting their lives back in order, and they were again supporting their families. So now all of that progress is lost, their families are back on welfare, and the taxpayers are spending about $40,000 per year once again to keep each one of them in prison. They could have been released yesterday without any threat to our safety.

Then there are other people in prison who are simply unable to be a threat to us. These are prisoners who are so old and feeble that the only thing they could do, if they had the strength, would be to throw their walkers at us. Their detention facilities look like old folks’ homes, with ramps instead of stairways, supporting bars on the toilets, chairs in the showers, and ground-up food on the tables. And, because of their medical problems, it costs taxpayers many hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep each one of these geriatrics in custody.

In fact, I recently received an e-mail from a friend who said that she had found the perfect solution to senior health-care problems. Obviously, you know that many seniors are told that they need to give up even the idea of receiving expensive medications for their blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, etc. And if they need a hip replacement, there is no way it will be funded, because the money will be spent on the younger generation.

Well, the answer is for people older than 70 simply to go out and commit a crime, and then be sent to prison. A roof over your head, three meals per day, and all the health care you can use. Need new teeth, great! Glasses? No problem! New hip, knee, kidney, lung, heart? Bring ’em on. Because if people are in prison, they are constitutionally entitled to good quality medical care. Of course, who will be paying for all of this? The same government that just said that you are too old for health care. And because you are a prisoner, you don’t have to pay any income taxes either! Problems solved!

You might think this is a joke, but that is exactly what taxpayers are now doing for thousands of people in prison. Many of them have been there for decades. On a case-by-case basis, some of the ones who have already spent many years in prison should be released, some to low-security halfway houses, and some should be released outright.

Of course, there are also thousands of nonviolent drug offenders who are spending years in prison for no good purpose. Remember prior columns in which we quoted the RAND Corporation that said, way back in June 1994, that taxpayers get seven times more benefit for their tax money when it is used for drug treatment instead of incarceration? Even for heavy-using drug offenders!

Again, on a case-by-case basis, we should release many of these nonviolent offenders from prison, with the strict condition that they participate meaningfully in a quality drug treatment program. That way, they will be much more likely not to be a drain on society, and the taxpayers can stop spending so much money without purpose. Please bear in mind that 95% of the people who are confined will be released someday. What kind of people will they be when that occurs?

And then there is a new philosophy that is beginning to sweep the nation, and that is the concept of “restorative justice.” This approach encourages a meaningful but much shorter time in custody for the offenders, but then has them released under a strictly applied program of formal probation. But, importantly, it also requires the released offenders, among other things, to get a job and make restitution payments every month to their victims, right off the top from their earnings.

Everyone wins by this system. The offenders are forced into the realization that there are costs for their misdeeds, and that it takes time and effort to pay them. The victims see that they are actually being reimbursed for their losses. That is both psychologically and economically comforting, because their insurance rates start to decrease due to the money being returned to their insurance companies.

And the taxpayers are given a big break because they are no longer required to pay for the continued incarceration of the offenders. So everyone comes out ahead except, of course, the prison guard union, which happens to be the strongest political lobby group in our state today.

Importantly, if violence was involved in the underlying offense, all bets are off. Prison is mostly meant to take violent offenders off the streets, and it should be used more fully for that purpose. But otherwise, we must understand that the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, but a full 25% of its prisoners! As such, we lead the world in the incarceration of our people. And in this case, “We’re No. 1!” should not make us proud.

So don’t let doctrinaire politicians and special-interest lobbyists spread fear about releasing even thousands of these prisoners without facing the evidence. Many of the people in prison shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and others have long since learned all the lessons that incarceration could possibly have taught them. Therefore, every thoughtful person should favor many of these offenders being released, on a case-by-case basis.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)