Californians' Priorities In Need Of Correction

January 31, 2009
/ Author: Rick

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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  1. I wonder if California has followed suit with many other states in regards to “privatisation” of our correctional facilities. If that is the case, it makes perfect sense why it doesn’t work and why nothing is ever done to address the issues. A privately owned prison would be a cash cow! Make the inmates work for next to nothing to benefit the all mighty corporation! The whole system is flawed and utterly corrupt and I suspect it will remain this way until we get back to following the constitution AS IT WAS WRITTEN in 1776…not the swiss cheese version in use today…full of holes.

  2. Excellent article. The FACTS for a change. It’s refreshing. Now, if someone could just figure out how to RE-educate Californians, especially the Legislator and the Governor, things just might get back on the right track.

    If California remains in the current downward spiral, it will not long survive. Not only are the wrong budget items being cut, the ones that should be cut are being left alone, starting with the legislators and their “perks”.

  3. Frank Courser says:

    It is unfortunately true that we allow such convictions. I also know a woman convicted and sentenced under Three Strikes. In 1989 she was with a boy friend that broke into three houses. Although she never entered the dwellings, she was an accessory. This was 5 years before Three Strikes was enacted. Ten years later in 1999 she also was found to have .09 gram of meth. That was strike three, and she was sentenced to 25 years to life. It would have been far cheaper to place her in rehabilitation even if she failed several times. She is going on her 10th year in prison at a cost of $42,287.00 dollars each year. Tax payers will have spent over a million dollars to keep her in prison after 25 years. For simple drug possession! Because of the rules of the California Department of Corrections, she is not eligible for the substance abuse program until 2 years before her date of parole. She will wait 23 years to be treated for her addiction.

  4. Jo Nathan says:

    Not only are the financial implications of criminal penalties ludicrous, the idea that increased penalties somehow increases “rehabilitation” is not supported by evidence. What is it, an 80-90% recidivism rate? Any serious enterprise, such as a business or engineering operation would certainly be trying to find better ways to solve the problem. Only the government, who spends other people’s money, and generally is not accountable can get away with persisting with a non-working system, when there is little evidence that incarceration works as a deterrent. Especially given that more than half of people incarcerated now are not violent offenders. My bet is that incarcerating those people just reinforces in their minds the that the criminal justice system is a joke and a game.
    How does this increase respect for the law and its observance?

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