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Reenvisioning California's prison system

by Wes Messamore, published

What if California's prison crisis would end - its overcrowding would ease, its spiraling prison costs would settle, and its streets would become much safer for law-abiding citizens - just as soon as Californians realized that their safety cannot be measured in the number of people behind bars?

What if the root cause of the prison crisis California faces is this facile, quantitative approach? As with many things in life, it's not so hard to see how public safety may be more about quality than quantity, and how threats to our public safety may not follow a Normal (or "bell curve") distribution, but a Pareto (or 80-20) distribution.

After all, if the state rounded up and arrested enough lawbreakers (down to the last jaywalker if need be) in the next month to double its prison population, but also released ten John Gardners onto the streets, Californians would probably be less safe even though there would be more people behind bars.  And that is the critical flaw behind the politicians' perennial cry to "get tough" on crime, which is merely a euphemism for locking up more people for longer sentences.

It's time to get smart about crime. It's not smart to sentence a man to life in prison under California's Three Strikes law for shoplifting a pair of socks, but release John Gardner after he served only five years for sexually assaulting a 13 year old girl and was appraised by a psychiatrist as possessing "significant predatory traits toward underage girls."

The politicians who passed the Three Strikes law can pat themselves on the back for "getting tough" on crime, but the result of their policy is simply more people in prison, not necessarily more of the kind of people who belong in prison instead of out on the streets. In fact, the prison overcrowding caused by Three Strikes has created the conditions where an overtaxed system is more likely to let people like John Gardner go. That's how prisons overcrowded with shoplifters and casual marijuana users actually make us less safe.

A comprehensive prison reform that reduces overcrowding by distinguishing between detainees who actually threaten public safety and those who don't might look like this:

1. End The Three Strikes Law - Ironically, the law was enacted after a strong public outrcry in the aftermath of the horrific murder of two girls. It's ironic because John Gardner slipped right through the Three Strikes policies and onto the streets of San Diego where he horrifically murdered two girls. Meanwhile, minor offenders who ostensibly pose no serious threat to our safety spend their entire lives in prison under this law's provisions. Repealing it would drastically ease overcrowding.

2. Tax Cannabis - Legalize, regulate, and tax cannabis. This would ease crowding in prisons by releasing people who commit a victimless crime. Of course driving while under the influence or selling to minors would remain illegal, but there's no need to detain people who casually and peacefully use the drug in the privacy of their own home- the same way people use alcohol or nicotine. Streets might actually become safer because the corner drug-dealer selling marijuana to kids would go out of business overnight.

3. Medical Parole - There are a few detainees in the system who are severely incapacitated to the point that they pose no foreseeable threat sitting in a hospital bed under armed guard, but moving them there and out of our prisons could save the state millions in transportation costs. According to one estimate "the prison system could save $213 million over five years by paroling just 32 inmates identified as severely incapacitated."

4. Stricter Sentencing for Violent Criminals - Chelsea's Law was a good first step toward preventing violent crime in California. Other measures to ensure that the truly violent and deranged remain behind bars instead of back on the streets in a few short years should be seriously considered by California's lawmakers. It is only possible to enforce these policies, however, if we have a prison system capable of doing so. This part of prison and public safety reform cannot happen without some or all of the measures listed above.

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