By Emily Harris and Isaac Ontiveros
Across the country, headlines show a new trend of nationwide prison closure. A recent report by the Sentencing Project notes that, to date, 13 states in the US have closed or are considering closing some of their correctional facilities, reversing a 40-year trend of prison expansion. States initiating prison closures include New York, Texas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Michigan, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin. Michigan, for example, has closed 21 facilities and has prioritized re-entry services for people returning to their communities from prison.
Fiscal crises have definitely fueled the trend, but reforms in sentencing and parole policies have also resulted in less demand for prison space. In turn, the closures have freed up millions and millions of dollars that could be used into rebuilding programs and services proven to keep people out of prison and in their communities.
California, unfortunately, is moving in the opposite direction. Despite an ongoing fiscal crisis in California, there are currently 13 costly prison and jail expansion projects moving forward using our states scarce resources, and we anticipate more construction to roll out under phase II of the notorious AB 900 legislation. AB 900 was signed into law in May of 2007, authorizing at least $7.4 billion in lease revenue bonds for the construction or expansion of our State’s prisons, jails and re-entry centers and marks the largest prison construction scheme in human history.
In May the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in a lawsuit against the state involving deadly prison overcrowding. Specifically, the court upheld the ruling of a federal three-judge panel requiring California to reduce overcrowding in its prisons from nearly 200% to 137.5 % of its "design capacity" within two years. The court's decision will almost certainly result in some of the most dramatic changes to the state's prison system in decades. So far, the state's plan for reducing the prison population relies heavily on shifting prisoners from state lockups to county jails, transferring more people to out-of-state private prisons, and building thousands more prison and jail cells.
As we see it, we could continue down this scary, shortsighted path and waste billions of dollars on prison and jail construction to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. But where will this end? How will we pay for the long-term operating costs? And what about the social costs? Will education, health and human services and our shrinking social safety net continue to be jeopardized to cover the bill for mass imprisonment?
The Supreme Court order and our growing budget crisis provide our state with a unique opportunity to change our approach to public safety. Instead of continuing to push forward these unnecessary and costly prison and jail expansion projects, now is the time to look to these other states that have safely reduced their prison populations by implementing basic and modest parole and sentencing reform. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office bolstered that argument after releasing a report recommending that California reconsider its costly construction program.
A place to start would include amending or repealing three strikes law, expanding medical parole, utilizing compassionate release, paroling elderly prisoners and reforming non-violent property and drug sentencing laws. Recent polls show the majority of Californians support these simple solutions. However out of touch our Governor and other lawmakers seem to be, we’d wager that Californians would be willing to take even greater steps against further prison crisis. If we want the safe and healthy California we all deserve, we need to make smart, long-lasting decisions that put our state back in a position of national leadership.
Emily Harris is the Statewide Coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Isaac Ontiveros is the Communications Director for Critical Resistance.