By Amanda Bailey and Joseph Hayes, research associates, Public Policy
Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Diego
Union-Tribune August 31, 2006
California prisons are in crisis. Inmates are dying at an unusually high
rate, rehabilitation programs are minimal, and a federal receiver has taken
control of the prison health care system. Prisons are severely overcrowded –
with 173,000 prisoners sleeping in gyms, dayrooms and classrooms – and state
prison facilities will likely run out of space by this time next year.
California has the highest recidivism rate in the country: 70 percent of
prisoners are re-imprisoned within three years.
In response, state leaders are debating next steps and struggling to develop
a strategy to fix the system. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed
large-scale construction of new prisons – and generated widespread opposition in
the process; a special session of the Legislature has met to grapple with the
construction issue and to evaluate whether the governor's plan includes adequate
rehabilitation and other alternatives to construction.
While it's true that action is needed, but may not be forthcoming soon, the
short-term decisions by policy-makers could lead us down a faulty and expensive
path. An essential ingredient to solving the massive prisons problem is to take
a breather and understand the population at the center of the debate – a group
that has been growing at three times the rate of California's overall population
for the last 15 years.
What's different about California prisoners today? For one, despite policies
such as “Three Strikes and You're Out,” which have lengthened inmates' sentences
and the time they serve, more and more prisoners are cycling repeatedly through
In 2004, two-thirds (67 percent) of admissions to state prisons were
returning inmates, a jump from 59 percent in 1990. Prisoners are being returned
either for technical violations of their parole or for new crimes, which
contributes to the 70 percent recidivism rate.
The current parole system increases the likelihood that parolees will return
to prison. The state doesn't use any intermediate level punishment – if you
violate parole, you go back to prison, no matter how minor the violation.
Furthermore, this is a tremendous administrative burden – of those 173,000
prisoners, about 120,000 are admitted in and 120,000 released out of the system
throughout the year.
Any thoughtful solution to the state's prisons crisis should realistically
consider the effect this type of turnover has on the communities, neighborhoods
and families from which prisoners come, and to which many eventually return. For
example, two-thirds of women and over half of men in prison are parents of minor
children – and children of incarcerated parents have been found to be more
likely to serve prison time themselves. Overcrowding has curtailed
rehabilitation efforts because of space and budget constraints, so released
prisoners return to their neighborhoods without the skills to make it on the
outside. Too often, they subsequently commit a violation of their parole, or a
new crime, at the expense of their communities and families, and return to the
prison system, at the expense of California taxpayers. Studies show that
prisoners who earn a GED in prison are less likely to return to prison.
California's prison population is also aging rapidly. In 1990, 20 percent of
the prison population was under age 25 – by the end of 2005, this group made up
only 14 percent of prisoners. During the same period, the share of prisoners age
50 and older nearly tripled, from 4 percent to 11 percent. Given the state of
health care in California prisons, these trends have critical implications.
Researchers have estimated the cost of housing, transporting and caring for
elderly prisoners to be two to three times higher than for other prisoners.
Inmates are aging because the state's overall population is aging – but also,
policies have lengthened prisoners' sentences and the amount of time they serve,
so they age while incarcerated. Also, older adults are increasingly likely to go
to prison. As costs mount, cost-effective alternatives to incarcerating older
people who are statistically less likely to pose a threat to society may become
a prudent consideration.
Decision-makers charged with reforming the prison system should consider the
characteristics of the prison population before implementing policies that would
affect it. The changing demographics of prisoners can provide valuable clues as
to the origin of rising costs and unchecked growth, and perhaps informed
decisions on whether to emphasize deterrence, rehabilitation or warehousing, in
crafting a coherent corrections policy.