Wednesday, August 10, 2011

California Lagging Far Behind Texas On Criminal Justice

By Timothy P. Silard, cross-posted from Huffington Post

At one time, Texas built prisons as fast as it possibly could. Now, the state is reforming its criminal justice system by focusing on community-based supervision, rehabilitation and treatment programs -- and it is putting its money behind that plan.

As a result, for the first time in its history, Texas is shutting down an adult prison, saving the state $25 million over the next two years. In doing so, it joins a nationwide trend of states that are moving to shutter expensive prisons, reversing a 40-year prison boom. Michigan, for example, has closed 21 facilities as a result of parole and sentencing reforms, according to a recent report.

California, unfortunately, is not currently part of that trend. Our state, which prides itself on innovation, is lagging far behind in criminal justice reform. But California has a unique moment of opportunity to move into the lead in adopting evidence-based, cost-effective strategies to our public safety approach. In fact, now is the time for the state to make a bold move - closing a state prison.

The immediate need is to fully implement Gov. Jerry Brown's plan (AB 109) to shift the state's lowest risk, nonviolent offenders into community-based corrections, and use the already appropriated "realignment" funds for rehabilitation, instead of opening any more prison or jail beds. The plan is part of the state's response to the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate to alleviate its prison overcrowding problems.

While the plan is an essential step, we can do more -- and we can start with women. California warehouses one of the largest populations of women prisoners in the world and also is home to two of the world's largest women's prisons.

If done effectively, AB 109 presents an unprecedented opportunity to rapidly decrease the number of women prisoners in the state and to shutter one or both of those prisons. The vast majority of the state's 9,500 women prisoners - an estimated 5,000 - are classified as low risk, locked up for non-violent and non-serious offenses. Approximately 4,500 have children under the age of 18. These women should be in much less costly and more effective alternatives to incarceration.

Closing down these women's prisons represents a cost savings of $278 million this year -- and around $3 billion over the next decade -- savings that our cash-strapped state desperately needs.

The Golden State shouldn't lag behind Texas when it comes to innovation in crime and justice policy. Our state prison system is broken and our state budget is just plain broke. Now is the time for California to start closing prisons, and we can start with the women's prisons.


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