Three Strikes For California’s Prisons

As an observer of the United States Supreme Court, I watched with interest as the court’s liberal wing (along with swing vote Anthony Kennedy) recently upheld two class-action suits claiming California’s prisons are overcrowded and provide inadequate medical and psychiatric care. The high court ruled the state must reduce its prison population by a staggering 33,000 inmates.

While my instincts tell me the high court has no business in such matters, the fact remains that California’s prisons are indeed overcrowded, despite the fact the state alone has 33 prisons and a budget of about $12 billion. Why are the state prisons breathtakingly expensive? Some of it has to do with the ridiculous Three-Strikes law and some of it has to do with bloated contracts for the union guards who support that same law.

But that is neither here nor there. What I hope this case brings is a renewed debate in this country about incarceration in general. Can there be any doubt that we send far too many people to prison for too long for relatively minor offenses?

In fact, I would go one step farther and question the whole notion of incarcerating non-violent offenders. Is sending them to prison effective? Based on the fact that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, I’d say no. The U.S has 5% of the world’s population but fully one quarter of all the world’s inmates. And we have a crime rate that, depending on whose statistics you trust, ranges from average to among the world’s worst.

Maybe — just maybe — a different approach would save taxpayers a lot of money and provide a different outcome. Or am I just dreaming?

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