By Keith Carson
California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has developed a rational proposal that will end the stalemate between the federal government and the State of California over meeting the federal mandate to reduce our overcrowded prisons.
The Federal Court has determined that overcrowding is leading to inadequate care of inmates, and thus violating their basic rights. The governor has put forward a proposal to shift even more state inmates to leased space in county jails and private facilities and delay the closing of Norco Prison in Riverside County in response to the federal government’s demands to reduce our prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. The governor’s proposal clearly does not address the root cause of the issue.
California’s overcrowded prison population is primarily a result of high recidivism rates (more than 65 percent of inmates return to prison over a three year period according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), inappropriate mandatory sentencing on low-level offenses, and the practice of sending large numbers of people to prison in certain counties. Since the Governor’s proposal does not address the high rate that people enter the prison system, implementation of his proposed initiative will eventually lead us to another prison overcrowding situation in the near future, thus returning us to the same situation we face today.
The heart of the proposal by Senator Steinberg provides performance-based grants to county drug and alcohol programs; and mental health programs that can document their success in keeping formally incarcerated people from returning to prison. The proposal also extends the deadline for reducing the prison population by three years and creates a panel to analyze and improve our sentencing laws.
Implementing the governor’s proposal would mean that taxpayers would continue to spend more than $50,000 per inmate to incarcerate someone in state prison, while doing nothing to disrupt the pipeline back to prison. The governor’s proposal would perpetuate a process that negatively impacts families, unravels the fabric of our communities, weakens the financial health of our state and continues to redirect the problem onto the backs of local government.
It is hard to argue that our current polices of sentencing and incarceration are successfully keeping our communities safer and rehabilitating those who are most in need. The key to helping our men and women who are returning to our neighborhoods become positive contributors to our communities is addressing the issues that led them to engage in criminal activity. Substance abuse and mental health issues are clearly high on the list.
Like many difficult situations, the solution to prison overcrowding requires innovation, creativity blended with the utilization of proven methods, not deferring the situation. By implementing Senator Steinberg’s proposal, many of those whose paths have led them astray will have the opportunity to receive the care and support they need to be thriving community members.
Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson represents the Fifth District, which includes Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Piedmont, and parts of Oakland. For information visit www.acgov.org/board/district5