Rethinking California’s Prisons

A three-judge panel has tentatively ruled that “[t]he California prison system must reduce overcrowding by as many as 55,000 inmates within three years to provide a constitutional level of medical and mental health care,” according to the New York Times.

Taxpayers rightly resent the price tag of the prison system, and many might understandably think that prisoners should have no right to expensive care at their further expense. But if the prisons cannot afford to care for its prisoners, we obviously have far too many.

Now is a good time to seriously reassess the whole system altogether.

There were virtually no prisons in this country when it was founded. The modern criminal justice system grew out of the institution of slavery (1, 2, 3). Prisons exploded in their growth in the 20th century. The Progressive Era, whose leaders dreamed of recreating society and redeeming mankind through an active and expansionist state, accelerated the development of today’s system. It grew steadily. Before Reagan’s presidency, there were half a million Americans in prison or jail and fewer than one and a half million on parole or probation. Now there are more than two million behind bars and seven million total in the correctional system. In California, prisons grew by 500% from 1982 to 2000.

This is madness. And it’s expensive. Some worry about the strain on social infrastructure if prisoners were mass-released, but they could not possibly cost the state more than they do now. They would also at least have the chance to create wealth as workers and consumers in the market, rather than just being a drain in the public sector.

Each prisoner costs taxpayers thirty-five thousand a year. Victims are not made whole, but forced to foot the bill to house their perpetrators.

The state used to have some restitution centers through which white-collar convicts could work and pay back their victims as well as some of their detention costs—but these were closed down last month. State officials said the program was too expensive. Only government could lose more money making people work than just locking them up, feeding and clothing them.

Most offenders never get the opportunity to pay restitution, but are simply jammed in obscenely overcrowded cages. California’s system is designed to hold about 100,000 but instead holds 171,000.

Judges used to have wide discretion in sentencing, which minimized overcrowding. In 1977, Democratic governor Jerry Brown stripped judges of this authority. “Over the next decade, California’s legislature, dominated by Democrats, passed more than 1,000 laws increasing mandatory prison sentences,” according to the Washington Post.

Brutal violence is all too common. Human Rights Watch estimates that nationwide one out of fifteen male inmates is raped. Many prisoners are effectively the slaves of their cellmates. Gang violence is endemic. The institution has become a totalitarian hell for those inside.

What’s worse, most people incarcerated should not be. A quarter of the inmates are locked up for non-violent drug offenses. They committed no act of violence against anyone’s person or property, and their imprisonment is part of a destructive drug policy that has boosted crime, trashed civil liberties, uprooted the social order and corrupted the whole legal system. Many others are in prison for other non-violent offenses against the state—unapproved gun ownership, tax evasion, and so forth. Many petty criminals do not deserve anything like today’s prisons, and their incarceration helps no one. Most prisoners can and should be released. The number of those who actually must be isolated from society would not lead to overcrowding or be an ungainly financial burden.

California’s recidivism rate is the highest in America. The system does not work. Indeed, people go in as small-time thieves and come out far worse. They go in as drug users and come out desensitized to savage violence. They go in as burglars and come out as rapists. Prisons increase crime.

Conservatives talk about the good old days when there was more civility, more freedom, lower taxes and less crime. There were also far fewer prisons. Until the modern system is rethought, we can never restore the liberty and social peace we once had.

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