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Prison Reform

Too many prisoners

California imprisons more people per capita than any state other except Texas, and more than any other countprisonerry by a wide margin.  It is the third largest expense item in the California budget, after education and health care.  Its proportion of the budget has quadrupled since 1980 (How did we get here?). In spite of all this, it is not reducing crime.



Media, Politics, not crime, drives high incarceration rate

The media magnifies the perception of how much crime there is, because if it bleeds, it leads.  Politicians get tough on crime to get elected, and we let them.  The penalties have gotten tougher and longer, with fixed, long sentences and 3 strikes.  The explosion in the prison population isn’t due to more crime, it is due to politics – more things have been defined as a crime (e.g., smaller quantities of marijuana, reclassification of a crime as a felony, etc.) and the sentences are longer.

We don’t try to seriously rehabilitate, and give virtually no assistance to those released or paroled from prison.  They naturally fall back into crime.  So by emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation, we are cutting off our noses to spite our face.  We are footing increasing tax bills and spewing criminals into the streets. 

Our choices are limited.  We could give more life sentences, but the costs go up for the longer stay and the health care needed for older inmates.  We could give the death penalty to more criminals so we don’t have to pay to house them.  But we are loath to do so because of the number who turn out to be innocent and the legal costs are actually higher.


There is no shortage of better ideas:

-  don’t let criminals out unless they participated in rehabilitation programs and actually passed them – anger management, budgeting, job training (see California injustice).  End 3 strikes and fixed sentences, and use minimum sentences with this requirement.

-. Decriminalize drugs, especially marijuana.  Why imprison drug users and not alcohol users?  Not only wosmokeruld we save prison costs, decriminalization would drive the price down, stopping criminal syndicates and eliminating the need for users to steal to afford their habit.  This is supported by 500+ economists, including some conservatives (see also the Chronicle’s token conservative commentator), and the Economist Magazine: Mar 5th 2009 Prohibition has failed; legalisation is the least bad solution

Politics, media, prison guard union prevent solutions

There are many studies and advocates for rehabilitation, ending 3 strikes and fixed sentence.  So why doesn’t it happen?  Politics, driven by the media and the prison guard union.

See "Unlocking America: Why and how to reduce America's prison population."

Reforms needed for Calif.

  1. End determinate sentencing (including 3 strikes).
  2. Non-prison punishment for non-violent offenders (reparations, community service). Giving long terms to violent criminals to keep the streets safe is fine. But it is a waste of money, humanity and labor to keep drug users and non-violent criminals in prison.
  3. Rehabilitation should be focused on parole time - increase parole time, with more supervision for violent criminals, decrease prison time.

Media Distortion of amount of crime

An Edge article argues notes that crime dominates TV news even though it has declined in the last few years (written in 2003). Of those crime stories, 20% are stories of murder. In the real world, only 0.1% are murder.

How did we get here?

Does increasing the prison population reduce the crime rate?

Promising Steps


The average burglar steals $1500, and we spend $64,000 to imprison him

The large numbers of prisoners is a function of politics, not crime rates. Even though crime rates were declining, the media made it seem like it was getting worse, because "if it bleeds, it leads." As a result, conservatives used tough on crime positions to get elected, liberals didn't object so they could get elected.


The U.S. has the world's highest incarceration rate, 737 per 100,000. Russia is second with 611. Many Western industrial nations are around 100. [The Pew Center says 1 in 100 Americans are in prison, a rate of 1000 per 100,000.]


In 1984, California had 12 prisons. Now it has 33.

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