Inmates in California

California put itself in a bind when voters imposed long prison sentences without considering the cost this would entail.

Today more is spent on prisons than on education, yet that figure remains insufficient to adequately house the prison population.

The reduction of 24,600 inmates achieved through Governor Brown’s realignment program is not enough for the panel of federal judges who have long been overseeing California’s prison system, considering that it failed in its duty to ensure inmates’ safety and health care.

Now, nearly 10,000 more inmates must be cut before December 31, otherwise the judges’ proposal for increasing earned-time credits for good behavior would be implemented, making it possible to accelerate the release of those who have completed rehabilitation courses.

Reaching the numerical target is very difficult, although reductions can be made by expanding geriatric parole, delaying the return of inmates housed out-of-state, and placing non-violent offenders in the firefighting camp rehabilitation program, of which the California Department of Corrections is part.

It is not farfetched to believe that a significant reduction in the number and Brown’s willingness to negotiate with the judicial panel could relieve the pressure.

The other major challenge is how to prevent prisons from continuing the fill up, while at the same time trying to reduce the prison population. The requires sentencing reform, and the guidelines provided by the Little Hoover Commission —which meets this Tuesday to address the matter— are a good place to start.

Now is a good time to undertake this reform with popular support—the same support that in decades past encouraged harsh sentencing. Survey after survey favors alternative sentences in drug cases, for example.

Public safety is a fundamental piece of this puzzle and is the priority. This is not, however, synonymous with locking people up. Corrections realignment has created rehabilitation programs in some prisons that did not previously exist.

If we truly go back to the concept of rehabilitation, the high rate of recidivism could be reduced, which would help maintain the balance between public safety and a humane prison system.