Wednesday, February 21, 2007

California Prison Population Must Be Reduced

Higher courts hearing appeals will have to sort out the issues raised by a Superior Court decision yesterday barring the Schwarzenegger Administration from sending prisoners to penal institutions out of state to relieve prison crowding in California.

The ruling by Judge Gail D. Ghanesian raises questions, in part, because it seems to side with the nefarious prison workers union whose chief concern is its members overtime pay, and not the well being of either the prisons or the state's criminal justice system.

But nonetheless elements of the Ghanesian decision do raise very serious questions about the constitutionality of moving hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of prisoners out of the state, mostly against their will.

And the court decision brings to the fore issues about California's prisons that can no longer be ignored. Jenifer Warren, the L.A.Times writer who has been covering these issues, is doing a public service.

Specifically, the three-strikes law, with its effect that thousands of elderly prisoners are kept in jail long beyond any reasonable need to do so, at immense expense to the state's taxpayers, has landed the system in crisis. Steps need to be taken urgently to amend this law to allow for timely prisoner releases so as to avert both overcrowding and a steady rise in tensions within the prison system.

It has to be recognized even by a crime-obsessed public that a very large proportion of prison inmates are in these institutions for drug offenses for which routine penalties are too long, and do not serve their purpose.

The overcrowded nature of the prison system not only has elevated prison expenses beyond reason, but the need to keep up with just feeding and housing the prisoners has led to a situation where rehabilitation goals of the system have been put in the shadow, and the prisoners allowed in most cases just to vegetate. This in turn contributes to the recidivism rate.

This, plus the overcrowding, has also contributed to the riots that now habitually mark the prison system. Ethnic tensions have soared, and the situation is explosive.

All of this, neither the governor nor the legislature have so far been able to cope with successfully.

The governor's top aides, such as the ethically-tainted executive secretary Susan Kennedy have played politics with the whole prison issue, and the legislature has dithered about solutions.

I do not, however, believe that one of those solutions is to increase the capacity of the prisons by 78,000, as the governor has proposed, even while he has suggested a review of the state's sentencing laws.

As the Times presentation today mentions, even former Gov. George Deukmejian, certainly no softie on crime, has held that overcrowdedness is at the root of the state's prison problems. The implication of such a finding is that sentences are too long and that many people in prison should not be there.

If the Ghanesian decision moves the state's politicians toward that conclusion, it will have done a public service, even if it also did a temporary service to the interests of the prison guards.

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