Lessons California Can Learn From Red States on Crime and Punishment

Politics makes for strange bedfellows and back in September, the LA Times published an op-ed from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and California businessman B. Wayne Hughes JR, founder and chairman of the board of Serving California, a foundation that helps ex-offenders, crime victims and veterans.

They wrote:

Imagine you have the power to decide the fate of someone addicted to heroin who is convicted of petty shoplifting.

How much taxpayer money would you spend to put that person in prison — and for how long? Is incarceration the right form of punishment to change this offender’s behavior?

Those are questions states across the nation are increasingly asking as the costly and ineffective realities of incarceration-only policies have set in. Obviously, we need prisons for people who are dangerous, and there should be harsh punishments for those convicted of violent crimes. But California has been overusing incarceration. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at.

Reducing wasteful corrections spending and practices is long overdue in California. The state imprisons five times as many people as it did 50 years ago (when crime rates were similar). And as Californians know, the state’s prison system ballooned over the last few decades and became so crowded that federal judges have mandated significant reductions.

Contributing to the growth in the number of prisoners and in prison spending has been a dramatic expansion in the number of felonies. In addition, mandatory minimum sentences have been applied to an increasing number of crimes. These policies have combined to drive up the prison population, as more prisoners serve longer sentences. On top of that, California has an alarmingly high recidivism rate: Six out of 10 people exiting California prisons return within three years.

It makes no sense to send nonserious, nonviolent offenders to a place filled with hardened criminals and a poor record of rehabilitation — and still expect them to come out better than they went in. Studies show that placing low-risk offenders in prison makes them more dangerous when they are released.

Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at. –  

Over-incarceration makes no fiscal sense. California spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, and $10 billion overall, on its corrections system. That is larger than the entire state budget of 12 other states. This expenditure might be worth it if we were safer because of it. But with so many offenders returning to prison, we clearly aren’t getting as much public safety — or rehabilitation — as we should for this large expenditure.

Meanwhile, California spends only $9,200 per K-12 student, and the average salary for a new teacher is $41,926. And as California built 22 prisons in 30 years, it built only one public university.

California is not alone in feeling the financial (and public safety) consequences of over-incarceration. Several states — politically red states, we would point out — have shown how reducing prison populations can also reduce cost and crime.

Most notably, Texas in 2007 stopped prison expansion plans and instead used those funds for probation and treatment. It has reduced its prison population, closed three facilities and saved billions of dollars, putting a large part of the savings into drug treatment and mental health services. Better yet, Texas’ violent crime rates are the lowest since 1977.

Another red state, South Carolina, made similar reforms for nonviolent offenses. The drop in the number of prisoners allowed South Carolina to close one prison and also lower its recidivism rate. Other states (Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi) have similarly shifted their approach to nonviolent convictions.

Now voters in California will have a chance to do the same, using costly prison beds for dangerous and hardened criminals. It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on locking up low-level offenders. Proposition 47 on the November ballot will do this by changing six nonviolent, petty offenses from felony punishments (which now can carry prison time) to misdemeanor punishments and local accountability.

The measure is projected to save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year, and it will help the state emphasize punishments such as community supervision and treatment that are more likely to work instead of prison time.

Take the example of Ray Rivera of San Diego, who represents a very common experience. Rivera was addicted to drugs from early in life. At age 24, he stole $50 of merchandise from a store to buy drugs, and was sentenced to prison.

Instead of being held accountable and confronting his drug habit through treatment, Rivera languished in prison and came out in worse shape. It wasn’t until he was out of the justice system that he sought and found the treatment he needed and cleaned up his life. Sending him to prison was a waste.

If so many red states can see the importance of refocusing their criminal justice systems, California can do the same. It’s not often the voters can change the course of a criminal justice system. Californians should take advantage of the opportunity and vote yes on Proposition 47.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    Obviously, we need prisons for people who are dangerous, and there should be harsh punishments for those convicted of violent crimes.”

    While I fully agree with the first clause of your statement and am a strong supporter of alternatives to imprisonment of the non violent, non dangerous offender, and will be voting “yes” on 47, I take exception to the second part of your assertion.

    If the goal of imprisonment is the protection of society, why should there be “harsh punishment” for those convicted of violent crimes? Why not simply permanent confinement in a humane setting.

  2. WesC

    In many respects California is not the progressive paradise that many seem to believe. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., provide some form of compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Vermont gives them a one-time payment of between $30,000 and $60,000 for each year they were locked up. Wisconsin pays $25,000 total, regardless of how long a person was incarcerated. So far Texas has paid 88 former prisoners—including two released from death row—a total of nearly $60 million, according to a spokesman for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. A dozen former inmates were added to the rolls in 2012.
    Texas is the most generous state in the nation when it comes to showing remorse for locking up the wrong man. In 2006, after serving 19 years and 11 months in a Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Billy Smith was exonerated of all charges and set free. He was 54. Despite clearing his name, he’s never been able to find a job. Under a law Perry signed in 2009, Texas will pay Smith about $80,000 a year for the rest of his life. He’s also eligible for the same health-care insurance as employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Money can’t replace his lost years, Smith says, but he’s now married and owns a home.
    If the wrongful conviction was due to prosecutor or judge  misconduct and the tab for compensation was billed to the county where the misconduct took place, I think many unethical prosecutors and judges would think twice before engaging in the behavior.

  3. Miwok

    If there truly were rehabilitation, there would be no need for prisons. Many things have been tried over the years, but none seem to get though to the criminals they are trying to be helped. Is it mental illness? Addiction? What gets through to these people, and I have mostly my own experience to fall back on.

    People seem to feel leniently toward criminals and addicts because they are one, have been one, or have kids and family that are. Through enabling on their part and plea bargains, the problems never really get dealt with. The other people I have encountered are living it as a lifestyle, and so have their families. How much pain they cause to others is what the system was trying to prevent.

    Mr. Greenwald has been pointing out how corrupt the “justice system” is, and I believe that on some levels. But just as he puts “mass incarceration” in the latest article, he makes it sound as though people are rounded up in groups and sent off together. I assure him and he must know, people are not tried in groups and the prisons are full of people who were sent one by one. How they behaved after they got there is one of the topics of movies and articles.

    After they get out, they have little skills or prospects, being told they cannot even go home to the other criminals they used to know. I think California needs to have some better ideas than Facebook to get people together regarding these problems, and certainly other ideas than I have of what to do to criminals when they are caught.

    1. David Greenwald

      That’s the real problem, after they get out they not only have little skills, but their felony status effectively precludes most forms of gainful employment.

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