The big prison duck

California incarcerates 170,000 people in facilities designed for less than half that number.
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EDITORIAL A panel of federal judges has ordered the release of 44,000 California prisoners, sending politicians of both parties scrambling for cover and throwing a crucial issue into the heart of the Democratic campaign for governor.

And so far, both major candidates are ducking, badly.

The state prison system is a mess; any sane person knows that. California incarcerates 170,000 people in facilities designed for less than half that number. Sick inmates don't get to see doctors; mentally ill or drug-addicted inmates often get no treatment at all. It's so bad that a federal monitor appointed by the courts has demanded that the state spend $8 billion building new medical facilities for prisoners.

Meanwhile, inmates are crowded into makeshift bunks in gymnasiums and dayrooms. The few modest rehabilitative programs California offers are stretched so thin that many inmates get no job training or violence-prevention skills at all. The parole system is overburdened and focuses far too heavily on people with minor, nonviolent offenses.

And politicians wonder why the state has a recidivism rate of 70 percent.

The solutions aren't rocket science, either. There's a clear reason why incarceration rates have jumped so high: harsh sentencing laws, passed by the Legislature and the voters with no concern for the costs of implementation. The state's three-strikes law is so draconian that thousands of people are serving 25 years to life for nonviolent felonies that typically would carry a sentence of a few years. So the first thing the Legislature and the governor need to do is change the sentencing laws (and give back discretion to judges).

Then there's a drug problem. California prisons are packed with people serving sentences for drug possession — and most of these people, and society in general, would be better served, at less than half the cost, with treatment programs.

And frankly it wouldn't be hard to release 44,000 inmates without any new threats to public safety. The vast majority of the inmates in California prisons are going to be released at some point anyway; in fact, the state now releases about 10,000 people a month. The early releases envisioned by the federal courts could simply mean allowing people who have served, say, three years of a four-year sentence to leave prison and shift to the custody of the parole system a few months earlier than scheduled. Many of those people are nonviolent offenders, particularly drug offenders.

With the state in a catastrophic fiscal condition, the cost of corrections ought to be a huge issue for the candidates for governor, particularly the Democrats. Mayor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Jerry Brown ought to be promoting a plan that would end the insanity of "three strikes," offer alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders and drug addicts, and allow early releases to bring down the current unsustainable incarcerated population.

So what are these candidates, supposedly alternatives to the Republican agenda, saying?

Here's Brown, quoted in the Los Angeles Times: "Government is established to protect the safety and security of its citizens, and these wholesale releases are totally incompatible with that." Where's Newsom? We called his campaign press office for comment, and haven't heard back.

This is unacceptable.

It's typical for Republicans to use scare tactics and talk about crime as a cheap way to win votes. But Newsom and Brown ought to know better. This is no time for demagoguery — the prison crisis is serious, festering, and a major factor in the state's financial mess. If the two leading Democrats can't come up with honest answers, it's time for someone else to enter the race. *

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