A hard look at the prison budget

Not only is this system inhumane and counterproductive, it's also expensive: it costs about $40,000 dollars a year to keep a prisoner behind bars.
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OPINION Last week's grim budget news from Sacramento reminded me of Edward Lorenz's often-quoted maxim, according to which the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas. California's budget, which we have consistently ignored and abused since the passage of Proposition 13, turns out not to have been limitless. And many residents, for whom our prison system had been invisible, may have found out for the first time that our correctional apparatus constitutes more than 7 percent of the state's annual budget. Perhaps we are finally ready to become aware of the impact of our prisons on our wallets — and our lives.

Californian prisons are at nearly 200 percent capacity; 170,000 people are kept behind bars, and many more are under parole or probation supervision. The prison medical system has been declared unconstitutional by the federal courts and handed to a receiver. Among the many reasons for this catastrophe are our irrational sentencing scheme, a collage of punitive voter initiatives approved since the 1980s, and our deficient parole system, which leads 70 percent of those released back into prison for largely technical parole violations. Not only is this system inhumane and counterproductive, it's also expensive: it costs about $40,000 dollars a year to keep a prisoner behind bars, and much more to treat aging, infirm prisoners who are in the system due to legislative constructs such as the three strikes law.

The silver lining of the budget crisis is the opportunity to rethink our social priorities and reassess how we may transform them to make the system less expensive and cumbersome. The indications of this transformation are everywhere: the resuscitated debate on marijuana legalization (and taxation); prioritizing violence and public harm over other offenses; a reinvigorated public discussion regarding the usefulness, and costs, of the death penalty; avoidance of expensive prison expansions; the national crime commission initiative, propelled by the failure of the War on Drugs; and the California Sentencing Commission Bill, which will soon come before the Assembly for a third reading.

Californians may not be as punitive as voter initiatives suggest. When informed of the existence of prison alternatives and of their costs, the public tends to choose less punitive options. Our current mentality of scarcity presents, therefore, a remarkable chance to decrease the size of our inmate population. This would lead not only to immense savings, but also to the release of many people who don't belong behind bars. How we use this opportunity, however, depends on our ability to imagine, and implement, a new set of priorities.

We must understand that short-term, emergency measures of mass releases will be ineffective unless we use this opportunity as a catalyst to rethink our beliefs on corrections. Without a strong set of rehabilitative and reentry programs, many of those released under the new policy will return to the prison system. If we want to avoid more expenses, and a revolving prison door, we must reform and rationalize our sentencing regime to conform to sensible, fact-based principles, rather than political fads and panics.

Such measures are the flaps of the proverbial butterfly's wings, and if we act not only swiftly, but deeply and wisely, we may be able to escape the tornado.

Hadar Aviram is associate professor of law at Hastings College of the Law and the author of the California Corrections Crisis blog, www.californiacorrectionscrisis.blogspot.com.