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How Did We Get Here?

How is it possible that California, a liberal state, has the worst prison system among the 50 states? The answer is politics - Democrats get campaign contributions from the prison guard union, which considers guard jobs more important than public safety or justice. Democrats and Republican's alike want to appear tough on crime, playing the fear card. While the fear card works on many political issues, it is like gold for politicians for the crime issue because of every citizen's real fear of being a crime victim.

The recent expansion of California's prisons started with Republican Governor Pete Wilson, who wanted to run for president as a tough on crime candidate. The California prison population was 24,000 in 1980, in 2007 it is over 170,000, an increase of over 600%. In the same period, the population of California increased from 23 million to 38 million, an increase of 65%. In 1980, corrections was 2.3% of the Calif. general fund budget, in 2007 it is about 9%.

U.S. crime rates have been stable or in decline since the mid-1970s. With the notable exception of homicide, crime rates in the U.S. are comparable to those of other developed countries that imprison their inhabitants at a much lower rate.

During the 1980s, the Democratic legislature in California passed over 1,000 laws increasing the length of mandatory prison terms

Democratic Governor Jerry Brown signed the end of indeterminate sentencing in 1977. Republican governor Pete Wilson pushed and signed Three Strikes in 1994.

Who are we really punishing when the US puts more people per capita in prison than any other country? We are paying room and board, and planning to spend billions of our money, to house non-violent criminals. We then make them worse by inhumane conditions and lack of rehabilitation. That is like capturing a bee in a jar, then shaking it up to make the bee mad, and letting it loose in the family room. Why not let them out, make them get a job, and make them pay us instead - with restitution fines instead of prison? Many argue this would increase crime, pointing out that the crime rate declined for over a decade in California since 1992, and attributing this to the Three Strikes law imposing longer prison terms. The only problem with that analysis is that it wasn't enacted until 1994, so although we can't be certain whether crime declined due to an improving economy, abortion (Freakonomics theory), or something else, we do know it wasn't because of Three Strikes. Crime has also not decreased because of determinate sentencing - that was imposed in California in 1977, and crime continued to increase until 1992.

A number of studies show that longer prison terms don't deter criminals, and that rehabilitation programs don't work well. What does work is a greater certainty of punishment, whether prison or a fine. The problem is that only a small percentage of crimes are solved.

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