California prison problems: Drug use policy gone awry

PrisonOriginally posted on Takepart:

I’ve been aware of the unjust nature of our prison system for a while, but a recent NPR story I heard in the car brought the issue front and center again. This piece is a combination summary and extension of that story.

Did you know that the US makes up 5% of the world’s population but houses 50% of the world’s prisoners? This significantly trumps even China and Russia, those evil countries whose human rights violations we keep hearing about so much.

The California prison system is a perfect example

Though it held steady throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, its prison population today is 8 times larger than it was 30 years ago. The reason? California’s passage of a slew of “get tough on crime” laws including:

-Increased parole sanctions
-Minimum sentencing laws
-Tough prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders (now 32% of the prison population)
-The famous “three strikes” law

The push for these laws was strong, and as NPR reports, one of its major contributors was the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). The CCPOA, through its political action committee, has been behind much of the toughening of CA sentencing laws. Even worse, it’s put its muscle to work fighting efforts to divert offenders from prison and reduce the prison population.

And it’s worked. Since the laws went into effect, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. And the money followed: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year. Their average salary? About $50,000, according to Payscale.

Letting the CCPOA affect California’s crime policy is like letting health insurance companies determine what health care you’ll get. What you end up with is too little care that costs too much money.

Prison CellBut aside from giving the officers’ union a full 70% of the state’s correction budget, Californians get little in return for their $10 billion. Cheap inmate programs that have been shown, in study after study, to reduce recidivism (repeat behavior) are now getting cut. In Folsom prison, there is a Braille translation program that in 20 years has kept every inmate who has been involved in it out of prison. This year, that program got chopped in half.

The currently available substance abuse beds can barely handle 5% of the inmates that need them.  To make matters worse, the programs were instituted so poorly that even the available beds are badly managed.

The results are obvious. California has the United States’ worse recidivism rate–70%!

Arnold Schwarzenegger touts his independence from special interest, but what’s happening in California seems to say otherwise . The CCPOA is a special interest of the worst kind–their interest lies in putting us away. The better they do, the more jobs they have, but at what cost to society?

It’s time for us to take back our streets, not by putting away every criminal forever but by fixing a system that’s been broken for nearly 30 years. If we want a fix to the CA budget crisis, let us divert money from officers to teachers, both inside and outside the prison system.

It’s time for California, and indeed America, to start thinking about the end-game. Unless we want to find ourselves building more and more prisons to house a larger and larger proportion of our citizens, it’s time to tip the scale back in favor of rehabilitation, and away from incarceration.

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