Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Crowded prisons and alternative sentencing

On Monday, a panel of federal judges ruled that California will have to reduce its prison population by about a third:

Monday’s ruling signaled the court’s intention to cap the number of prisoners at about 101,000, a reduction of 55,000. It came after more than a decade of federal court orders from exasperated judges who demanded that the state improve its facilities and personnel, after the appointment of the most powerful federal receivership since the days of forced racial integration in the South, and after the death of scores of prisoners who committed suicide or died of preventable illnesses.

The judges encouraged the state to negotiate with inmates’ lawyers to cut the prison population from 156,000, which is about double the system’s capacity, within three years. If the state refuses to negotiate such a plan, the judges could order specific actions, including shortened prison sentences, diversion of nonviolent felons to county programs, and parole reforms that would cut down recidivism.

Few releases of prisoners would be necessary to reduce the prison population if the state carried out sentencing and parole reforms, which could save $903 million a year, according to the federal judges. They also argued that such reforms could be achieved without jeopardizing public safety.

Indeed; one major thing that could be done to help with this issue is something that’s come up before in these pages: alternative sentencing.

Alternative sentences aren’t a complete or perfect solution, and they’re not for all situations. But in many cases, sentences other than prison, sentences that allow convicted criminals to contribute to society, provide for their families, and make restitution to their victims, serve society as a whole far better than do prison sentences.

Yet we don’t use them often enough. “Tough on crime” platforms get candidates elected, and the resultant legislation that includes things like mandatory sentencing and “three strikes” laws wind up over-stuffing the prisons. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that swelling population of inmates is a good thing.

But Joe Arpaio styled prisons are not good for anyone. They punish, most assuredly; yet they neither rehabilitate nor deter:

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for vitally important law-enforcement functions in one of the largest counties in the nation. It defines its core missions as law-enforcement services, support services, and detention.

MCSO falls seriously short of fulfilling its mission in all three areas. Although MCSO is adept at self-promotion and is an unquestionably “tough” law-enforcement agency, under its watch violent crime rates recently have soared, both in absolute terms and relative to other jurisdictions.

Mistreating prisoners hardens them. Locking convicts up takes their resources away from society and puts their families on welfare, or worse. Giving them no productive role and no sense of pride and accomplishment during their sentences prepares them with none of these when they’re released.

And, yet, it’s so easy to say that we’re tough on crime — and it’s hard to get elected if you’re not. That train moves fast, and it’s hard to stop.

Of course, incarceration makes some things easier. It sets up easy supervision for large numbers of convicts. Supervising them under an alternative-sentencing system, managing their sentences, and making sure that they don’t do more crimes while they’re working off the first one are certainly challenges. But we benefit from meeting those challenges.

We have to understand how to use prison when it’s appropriate, yet how to use alternatives, too, when they’re appropriate — and how important it is to elect and appoint judges who support that, and to leave them the freedom to use their judgment.

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