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Californians' Priorities In Need Of Correction

In today’s Fresno Bee, Dan Walters comments (2015 update: as with many Bee stories, this link is now gone) on the need to lock down prison spending. This paragraph contained a rather stunning set of statistics:

“Corrections,” an ironic misnomer, has jumped from less than $5 billion a year to more than $10 billion [a year] in the last decade, more than twice as fast as school spending, the biggest budget item. It now costs about $45,000 a year to feed, clothe and medicate each of the state’s 170,000-plus inmates, or roughly five times what taxpayers spend on a typical public school student. And that doesn’t count what it costs to supervise tens of thousands of parolees.

Frankly, this is ludicrous.

Walters goes on to recommend “shedding some low-intensity inmates” such as drug users and drunk drivers by transferring them to locally-run treatment programs. Those programs would be funded by raising taxes, because Californians don’t pay enough already.

I have a better idea. How about we recognize that our draconian system of rules — particularly our beloved Three Strikes legislation — is not only a bad way to approach the treatment of human beings with problems, but is also bankrupting us?

One woman I know of, for example, has (had?) an addiction to methamphetamine. “Debra” was once the victim of domestic violence, yet somehow ended up being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon on the spouse who used to abuse her. Under California’s law, this is a “strike.”

After she was found to have three-hundredths of a gram of metamphetamine on her during a probation search, she ended up being convicted of possession of a controlled substance and was subsequently sentenced to thirty-two months in prison. Thirty-two months. For three-hundredths of a gram. Do you know how much that is? You can hardly see it, it’s such a small amount!

The actual sentence for the three-hundredths of a gram of which the court handed down was 16 months; what used to be called “the mitigated term.” However, because of her prior strike, the sentence was doubled; in this case, 16 months became 32 months.

Meanwhile, I have no idea if the Debra’s addiction will be helped by prison. After all, our system isn’t about rehabilitation. And prison guards smuggle (5/2016 Edit: link has vanished from Internet) the stuff in, because they’re so grossly underpaid.

The Three Strikes law has resulted in an explosion in California’s prison population. “Since 1994, the courts have sent over 80,000 second strikers and 7,500 third strikers to state prison.” California now houses more prisoners than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands combined.

California’s Three Strikes legislation basically says that someone with a “strike” — serious and violent felonies — who gets any felony after that will have the sentence for the new felony doubled; someone with two prior strikes will go to prison for life if they commit any felony. By “any” felony, this means even those that are not violent or serious. For example, Debra with the three-hundredths of a gram of meth would have gotten life in prison if she had two prior strikes instead of just the one.

And so, as noted above, the numbers of California citizens in prison has dramatically increased. But the numbers at any given point in time only tell part of the story.

Remember, someone with two strikes goes to prison for life, no matter how small the felony. Also remember, the original sentence for the three-hundredths-of-a-gram case was a mitigated term of two years. But someone with three-hundredths of a gram of meth and two strikes could — and sometimes does — get life in prison. (Judges can “strike the strike,” making it “not count” for a particular case, but they don’t have to and many, like the one who sentenced Debra, refuse.)

As Dan Walters noted, it costs an average of $45,000 per year to keep someone in prison. So a two-year sentence costs $90,000. But when that person is in their twenties, has two strikes and the judge refuses to strike the strike, now we’re talking some real money. Assuming she lives “only” 20 more years in prison and assuming the costs of keeping her there never go up, the price tag goes from $90,000 to ten times as much, or $900,000. That’s nearly one-million dollars to lock someone up for what is basically a minor crime.

Meanwhile, California, “off the charts compared with other states in corrections spending,” is cutting school spending.

It’s not just our prison and justice systems which are out of whack here. Californians’ priorities are in need of a major correction.

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