Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Critique of Rehabilitative Program Cuts

Yesterday's Chron reported the expected cuts to rehabilitative programs in California prisons.

The cuts mean that 17,000 fewer inmates will be able to enroll in academic and vocational programs and 3,500 fewer inmates will be able to enroll in substance abuse programs. At San Quentin State Prison alone, 13 of the 19 programs currently offered are slated for elimination, according to teachers there, including all but two of the six vocational programs, an anger management course and a high school program.

California has a 70 percent recidivism rate - the highest in the nation. That number will increase with these changes, said San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, a Democratic candidate for attorney general.

"We know that when you go to prison and come out with no changed circumstances, you are prime to reoffend," she said. "The first and principal priority should be prevention."

The cutbacks are the result of the state's budget crisis and the $60 billion deficit lawmakers tackled last year. As part of two budget plans approved in 2009, prison officials were forced to reduce spending by $1.2 billion this year. The state also made deep cuts to education, health and human services, and many other public programs. Still, California now faces a new $20 billion deficit through June 2011 and further cuts to state programs are anticipated.

This morning's Chron features a serious critique of these cuts from unexpected sources: Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California (and driving force behind Prop 9), and Assemblyman Ted Lieu, who is a prosecutor and member of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

This is shortsighted because, while the time a criminal spends in prison is for punishment, it can also be used for rehabilitation and change. This time is wasted unless it's used to teach an inmate to read, earn a high school diploma, acquire life skills, complete anger management courses, learn a trade or otherwise provide them with alternatives to a life of crime. Instead of increasing rehabilitation programs - or at least maintaining current levels - the department is cutting $250 million of a $600 million rehabilitation program. It's also laying off 600 to 900 educational and vocational prison instructors. These reductions fail both inmates and the public.

If an inmate spends five years in a state prison, is released without rehabilitation, re-offends, and then is sent back to prison, what have we gained? The department's approach is unwise and dangerous. Unreformed inmates are very likely to re-offend, which means more crimes will be committed, more victims created, more lives torn apart. Where is the reform?

Salarno and Lieu's angle is, of course, the expected danger to society, and they do not fail to mention the risk of the expected releases. But the interesting thing is that punitiveness and rehabilitation are not contradictory. Several studies in punitivism have found Americans to have a "punitivism complex", which consists of supporting, simultaneously, punitive initiatives and extensive rehabilitation programs, particularly for juvenile offenders. In the turmoil around early releases, we may have found something we can all agree on.

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