California Prison Issues

Prisons are big business- they make a lot of money for the suppliers and fund, in an indirect way, the work of the police officers and forces who put people in them. They are also a necessary institution to keep the state functioning- protect the masses from the individuals who do not participate in society the way that creates a liveable society. For most of us, people go into and come out of prison without much affect on our day-to-day lives. We don’t think about prisons as something that needs to be managed- well, at least, I don’t think about prisons on a day-to-day basis.

California is dealing with major prison overcrowding issues right now. The issues are so major that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will be appealing to the Supreme Court about a federal court ruling demanding that the state reduce its prison population by 40,000.

This is an extended legal battle and touches on prison overcrowding issues as well as consistent complaints about California’s medial prison care.

"We don't believe it's right. We need to reduce the prison population but we need to do so in a responsible way,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

California currently has around 170,000 inmates. Schwarzenegger wants state legislation to cut the state’s prison population- so is this an ego trip? Or is it a management issue? Or is it, in the end, a money issue? The prisons are one of the most expensive things in the state. The state Senate and Assembly have both passed bills aimed at reducing the prison population but they are far apart on who should be released. The Senate passed legislation that would release old and sick inmates while the Assembly passed a bill that would release less people. There is little optimism that the two bills can be made to meet in the middle. Schwarzenegger was in favor of the Senate version.

It’s interesting that the idea of releasing non-violent criminals or those who are in prison for marijuana issues is not part of this debate. The role of prisons is clearly not to rehabilitate prisoners- while that is a portion of people being incarcerated, the main function of our prison system is to get criminals off the street.

Releasing old and sick prisoners seems like a good place to start- but what about non-violent criminals? Yes, it is a separate issue- changing a law so that people convicted of minor drug offenses don’t end up overcrowding the population in prisons- but if this is an issue that is making it all the way to the Supreme Court, it obviously has major bearing over the future of prison policy in California.

And California needs money. Raising fines for people convicted of drug offenses is one option, or creating separate programs for those who are non-violent offenders that don’t need to be kept away from society necessarily and could probably do for rehabilitation instead. And why does someone who grows marijuana need to go to prison anyway?

In the end, Schwarzenegger is probably looking save some money, and he just wants to do it his way- not the federal court’s way. While we can look from the outside and make suggestions to make the situation better, it will be another story of court battles- the same mechanism that overcrowds the prison deciding how to deal with that very issue.