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PD Editorial: Long-term thinking for state prisons


In his speech Monday about prison crowding, Attorney General Eric Holder candidly acknowledged what California officials have not.

"We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," he said.

Holder wasn't specifically addressing California in his remarks at the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco. Still, his proposals to cut costs and alleviate overcrowding without abandoning public safety are especially timely for California, which is under a federal court order to shrink its prison population by 10,000 inmates by the end of the year.

To ease crowding in federal penitentiaries and free resources for investigations, prosecutions and intervention programs, the attorney general said he is directing federal prosecutors to avoid charging nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry lengthy, mandatory minimum sentences.

Next, he called on Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing defendants. He also requested more resources for drug treatment, an approach that's been shown to reduce recidivism.

Finally, Holder announced an expansion of compassionate release for aging inmates who didn't commit violent crimes, have served significant time in prison and aren't a threat to the public.

"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget," he said.

The problems in federal prisons as outlined by Holder parallel those in California prisons, and the attorney general's recommendations could — and should — have been offered long ago by Gov. Jerry Brown and other responsible state officials.

Instead, they are dragging their feet.

On Friday, a week after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, the governor again asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Does he really think the justices will change their minds?

Despite claims to the contrary, complying with the four-year-old order to get the prisons down to about 137 percent of their design capacity isn't going to mean opening the gates and sending 10,000 violent felons into the streets.

Indeed, the state is planning to move thousands of inmates into private prisons, leased space in county jails and reopened community corrections facilities. Some elderly prisoners may be released early, and some inmates may be given additional credits for working or good behavior, shaving a few months off their sentences.

These measures probably will satisfy the court. But they are short-term responses to a long-term problem.

California spends $11.1 billion a year on its prison system, nearly matching the state's expenditure for higher education. For all that money, prison conditions still don't meet constitutional muster.

Building more prisons isn't a cost-effective answer. Chances are, it would just lead to more crowding. California went on a building spree in the 1980s and '90s and proceeded to fill the new prisons to double their capacity without any noticeable impact on the crime rate.

Over the past few years, the state has diverted some low-level offenders to county jails and increased spending on prison health care, a key factor in court findings about substandard conditions.

There is more to be done. Holder's ideas are just a start. California officials should consider just who needs to be incarcerated and who might be kept out of the prison system's revolving door with drug treatment or an intervention program.

Within the prison system, the state should offer incentives for inmates to pursue education and job training programs that might keep them from returning to prison. Fewer inmates have been assigned to firefighting camps in recent years. That doesn't make sense. When has the need ever been greater?

Outside the walls, more resources are needed to keep track of inmates once they are released. And Brown should appoint a commission to review sentencing laws.

As Holder said, "We must never stop being tough on crime. But we must also be smarter on crime."