When it comes to criminal justice policies, England and the U.S. have some of the same problems.
As an example, during the past four decades both countries have had a sustained and widespread imprisonment binge and both have recognized that their current criminal justice policies are morally and economically unsustainable. Moreover, both refuse to follow the data telling policymakers how to fix their criminal justice systems.
Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons in the United Kingdom (UK), describes England’s criminal justice system as the “Swiss cheese theory of disasters,” presumably because it has so many holes in it.
Early this year, the independent, non-partisan government analyst Little Hoover Commission described California’s correctional system as “a slow motion disaster.”
On the federal level, independent, non-partisan Inspector General Michael Horowitz told journalist Andrew Cohen that even though the federal government knew since 2006 that prison overcrowding and prison capacity were problematic, “the numbers haven’t improved, they’ve gotten arguably worse and are on the path … to continue to get worse in the years ahead.”
The Rand Corporation has shown through the analysis of millions of cases that vocational training and correctional education are effective ways to reduce recidivism.
“Realignment alone will not solve
the state’s overcrowded prisons”
Britain’s Hardwick recognizes that, “You need to make rehabilitation the central point,” according to a report in The Independent, a British newspaper.
Hardwick said English prisons are deceptive. “Bear in mind whenever you see an official photograph of a prison cell, they seem really enormous,” he said. “But really, they’re not.” It may be hard for people to imagine having to live two to a room, where “you can practically touch both walls,” Hardwick said. “Prisoners are sometimes being locked in those cells for 23 hours a day.”
His description sounds a lot like San Quentin. If Hardwick toured this prison, he’d find he actually could touch both walls inside a cell and that each prisoner has to live in that space with another man.
Then there is the reality that California prison conditions have been found to be unconstitutional because the state cannot deliver adequate medical care to the inmates.
So apparently there is little difference between the UK and US prison systems except for one small matter – the overall numbers.
One statistic that should raise questions for every American taxpayer is this: The U.S. has an incarceration rate of 716 people for every 100,000 in population as opposed to the UK’s rate of 147 per 100,000. The U. S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but has about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 1980, the nation’s prison budget was about $6 billion per year. Today, that figure is about $80 billion.
The immense costs of incarceration have inspired a new conversation about reducing the prison population as a matter of fiscal responsibility and budgetary necessity. The discussion often centers on cutting down on the arrests and prosecutions of “non-violent drug offenders.” But reducing the prison population for fiscal and budgetary reasons ignores a much more pressing concern – the aging prison population. The rising cost of incarcerating and caring for elderly inmates will soon prove unsustainable if meaningful action is not taken.
In addition to the cost, reliance on long-term mass incarceration of aging citizens has serious moral, ethical, public health and public safety implications. But if taxpayers disregard those factors and focus only on the money, the U.S. currently spends $16 billion annually on incarceration for individuals aged 50 and older — more than the entire Department of Energy budget or Department of Education funding for school improvements.
Today, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is starting to focus more on rehabilitation. But prison officials have done this before. Unfortunately, they quit under Jerry Brown’s first governorship back in the ’70s. Now, the state has undertaken a new approach to reducing the prison population, called Realignment.
The Little Hoover Commission is telling Californians something that they should pay close attention to: “Criminal justice policies that rely on building and operating more prisons to address community safety concerns are not sustainable, and will not result in improved public safety.” Moreover, the commission tells Californians that Realignment alone will not solve the state’s overcrowded prisons. Long, mandatory sentencing laws have to be examined and changed. The criminal justice policy has to incorporate a way for offenders to be rehabilitated and returned to their communities.
The commission looked at Contra Costa County as a model for California criminal justice policy because the county spent a significant amount of its resources on rehabilitative efforts, shorter sentences and health services. The three-year recidivism rate for felony probationers in Contra Costa County was 20 percent, compared to the statewide average of 60 percent or higher.
Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, once famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That generated a lot of attention and brought economic issues to the forefront in the campaign. I would like to modify that sound bite by saying to CDCR, the governor and the Legislature when planning to solve prison problems, “It’s rehabilitation.”