By Randy Wilde, Staff Columnist
Beyond all the fearmongering and apocalyptic rhetoric surrounding the California budget crisis, some serious issues have been forgotten. Our state prison system is overcrowded with returning inmates, which proves that our programs are failing to produce their desired effect on criminals. We need to reform the system so that it can reform individuals, rather than expect confinement to fix their behavior. These changes could simultaneously help plug up our massive fiscal drain and shave off millions from our compounding debt.
California taxpayers pay an inordinate amount of money to keep criminals incarcerated. Last year, California taxpayers footed a bill of $45,045 per inmate. With a prison population of 86,535, that’s a considerable sum, not to mention it costs one and a half times the national cost of $28,689 per inmate.
Here’s yet another appalling number: A recent report estimated that 67.5 percent of inmates released from prison return within just three years. Why do most prisoners released resort to crime once again and end up right back behind bars so quickly? This is the heart of the problem. Obviously our “justice” system based on punishment, rather than reform, is not a very effective tool for fighting and preventing crime.
In these times of tight budgets, the cuts always seem to fall in just the wrong places.
In a recent interview, the warden of Donovan State Prison in Otay Mesa explained how budget cuts wiped out its substance abuse, educational and vocational programs. These programs keep inmates productively occupied to prevent violence, representing the only real opportunity for them to leave prison with a chance of readjusting and staying out for good. When prisoners who have only experienced violence and cruelty during their incarceration are released without gaining any new skills, is it any surprise that they once again resort to crime and end up right back in prison within a few years? If you want them to change their behavior, give them the tools to do so. Empower them with knowledge, perspective and a solid work ethic.
Our current penal system is ineffective, unjust and incredibly expensive. If we really want to cut costs, obviously the key is to target the rate of recidivism, or repeat offenders. To reduce those numbers, we need to do more than just lock our problems up and hope they go away. For any meaningful change, the criminals themselves must be reformed, through rehabilitation, education and practical training. The cost of these programs will be well worth it if they can help more than just three out of 10 prisoners stay out of prison.
—Randy Wilde is an international security and conflict resolution junior.
— The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.