How lowering California's prison population is good for the state
Though Monday's 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that California's prison population must be reduced has prompted a degree of hysteria, among many local opinionators this is positive news in our quest for prison reform.
Because of overcrowding, writes the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, inmates don't get the rehab they need to reintegrate into society. "Eventually mentally ill and sick inmates untreated and brutalized in prison do get out, sicker, more mentally ill and more dangerous than when they arrived,"
Tim Rutten's Wednesday column hit some of the same notes. "Our problem is, as the court pointed out, that overcrowding has reduced this state's prisons to a state of constitutional and human indecency -- and that's a moral and legal scandal. Though it's been quoted with the frequency of cliche, Dostoyevsky's admonition remains true: 'The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.' "
And wouldn't it be better to get to the root of the problem, as Steve Lopez suggests: "Although it's not easy to treat addiction or mental illness, the best policy is to try to help people get better rather than churn them through courts and prisons, punishing them for the conditions that got them into trouble. Actually, a better use of tax dollars would be to treat those conditions before there's any crime involved, but that's for another column."
Beyond addressing issues of how best to treat prisoners, Monday's decision might also get lawmakers in a productive conversation about how best to reform our prison system. "One way is to create an independent panel to revise the state's haphazard sentencing guidelines, which all too often result in excessive terms that worsen overcrowding," suggests our editorial board. "In other states, sentencing commissions have lengthened penalties for truly dangerous felons while finding alternative punishments for minor offenders." The editorial continues: "Maybe the threat of wide-scale prisoner releases can finally scare our lawmakers straight."
Photo: An inmate stands in his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana on May 24, 2011. Credit: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters