22 Oct Why We Must Reform “Prison Reform”
By California State Senator Holly J. Mitchell
The public has begun to show growing concern about the negative impacts of the incarceration policies and practices of the state of California and its 58 counties. As of 2011, there were nearly 144,000 inmates squeezed into state prisons intended to house no more than 84,000. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such overcrowding constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and must be relieved. The state’s policy of “realigning” non-violent inmates to county jails has simply shifted part of the problem to already overburdened counties.
Because the fundamental problem is the growing number of people being imprisoned under such draconian statutes as the “Three Strikes Law,” all efforts to reduce the number of people being supported in jails by taxpayers, being branded criminals by the law enforcement and criminal justice system and being warehoused in overcrowded conditions are Band-Aids on a broken system.
The truth is that we have largely neglected – some would say abandoned – the rehabilitative function of incarceration, giving rise to several fundamental problems. Excessive incarceration is brutality. Many people are imprisoned despite little evidence that they actually pose a significant threat of harm to those on the outside, given that their convictions were for non-violent offenses, often involving regulated drugs.
Another effect is inefficiency. Locking up so many for low-level offenses is unsafe and costly. Finally, there is the sheer inhumanity of jailing people, rather than treating them for drug addiction. Imprisonment breaks up families, prevents inmates from contributing to the support of their families and fails to rehabilitate, setting up both the prisoner and society for endless repeats of a crime-jail-joblessness-crime cycle.
Efforts to address the problem are ongoing but remain under-resourced in light of the scale of the challenge. In 2013, the California State Legislature passed and Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 105 to comply with the court-ordered mandate to bring down Ca
lifornia’s incarcerated population to 137.5 percent of the state’s prison capacity. A little over $81 million has been allocated this year to the Recidivism Reduction Fund for reentry services, including the expansion of substance use disorder treatments and 300 new slots in the Integrated Services for Mentally Ill Parolees program. My bill, AB 624, went into effect this year, authorizing county jails to let inmates earn up to six weeks credit toward early release by successfully completing approved rehabilitative classes. Another of my bills, SB 1010, just signed into law by the governor, will set the same penalties for all cocaine-related offenses, whether the drug is in the form of crack or powder.
As we continue to call for more and better rehabilitation programs that lead to “ready reentry” in both state prisons and local jails, we must also continue to reform our justice system so that poor people and communities of color are not subjected to the effects of unjust laws and disproportionate incarceration. Freeing our kids from the prison of poverty is more than reason enough to save those of their family members we can from the prisons of the state.
Mitchell is the California state senator for the 54th District.