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July 13, 2008 -- The Vacaville Reporter (CA)

Editorial: Prison Games

California Can't Afford to Play Them Anymore

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

'Aging inmates add strain on state prisons," said the headline in last Sunday's Reporter. It was affixed to an Associated Press report detailing how the average age of California prisoners is climbing, putting more pressure on the broken prison health-care system.

But it wasn't prison health-care that captured the attention of The Reporter's editorial board, or the fact that the writer highlighted the problem by focusing on a Vacaville prison. It was a single paragraph describing why Louis Rodriguez -- a 66-year-old inmate struggling through the final stages of liver cancer at the California Medical Facility -- is even in prison.

"He is serving a life sentence after being convicted of a 'third strike' for stealing candy and cheese from a Los Angeles County grocery store," author Don Thompson wrote. "The conviction in 2000 followed another petty theft and a string of robberies nearly 30 years ago."

A life sentence for petty theft? And it's costing taxpayers $98,000 to $138,000 a year to incarcerate sick inmates such as Mr. Rodriguez -- more than twice to lock up a healthy prisoner.

Is this really what California voters had in mind when they approved Three Strikes 14 years ago?

The law of unintended consequences has caught up with California. The state budget and the prison system are broken, and federal judges are now taking charge of the latter.

Legislators, the governor and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials have been working for years now to reduce overcrowded conditions in a system that was built for 100,000 inmates and now houses 159,000. That number, at least, has dropped from a 170,000 peak, but the prisons are still overcrowded. And there has been some effort to put "rehabilitation" back into the system's mission, in hopes of easing the recidivism rate that contributes to overcrowding.

But to date, all efforts to reform the law that allows life sentences to be imposed for petty crimes have failed. An initiative to repair the Three Strikes law in 2006 was defeated by voters. Another initiative headed for this November's ballot didn't even qualify. And a recent attempt by the governor and Legislature to put together a sentencing commission that might bring some sanity to the process fell apart amid partisan squabbling.

Indeed, of the 11 ballot measures (and counting) that California voters will weigh in on this fall, two would lead to even longer and stricter prison sentences, while a third would divert nonviolent substance abusers into treatment.

One member of the lock-'em-up crowd, state Sen. George Runner, R-Antelope Valley, recently issued a report titled "Who Is in Our State Prisons?" in an attempt to show that there is nothing wrong with Three-Strikes -- that California is about average when it comes to incarceration rates.

That may well be true, but the same credible sources of Sen. Runner's statistics also show that incarceration rates are rising throughout the nation as politicians try to outdo each other in being tough on crime. At the middle of last year, the U.S. Justice Departments Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, there were 762 persons per 100,000 U.S. residents in jail or prison --11 percent more than in 2002, when the national incarceration rate was 684 persons per 100,000; 131 percent more than in 1997 when the rate was 330 per 100,000; and 348 percent more than in 1987, when the rate was 170 per 100,000.

Because California's prison population didn't rise as quickly as Three Strikes opponents believed it might initially, Sen. Runner claims the law hasn't caused explosive growth in the prisons.

"Equally dubious is the claim that California prisons are filled with low-level offenders and drug addicts," says the senator, who is backing one of the get-tougher ballot initiatives this fall. "The most recent census (Dec. 31, 2007) of state prison inmates ... reports that 53.1 percent of men in California's prison were committed for crimes against persons."

A bare majority of inmates may well be serving time for violent crimes, but that leaves a substantial number who are incarcerated for nonviolent felonies. A California Legislative Analysts' report from a few years ago showed that at the end of 2004, there were 5,130 second- and third-strike inmates serving long prison sentences for merely possessing a controlled substance. Another 2,363 were imprisoned for "petty theft with a prior."

California can't afford this. And since our Legislature and governor aren't willing to tackle sentencing reform, it's going to be up to voters to study those ballot measure carefully this fall, with an eye toward avoiding more unintended consequences.

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