Earlier this year crime victim and restorative justice advocate Cheryl Ward-Kaiser and I went to speak at a medium security Northern California prison. I have spoken at and visited a number of prisons in California, Texas and even outside the country. I was taken back by the obvious fact that the system was dealing with severe overcrowding. Cheryl and I spoke inside a housing unit for the inmates. That was quite unusual, but the choice was only due to the effort of the administrator to bring in as many inmates as possible to hear our restorative justice presentations. But what I saw that day was a housing unit jammed full with inmates, virtually one on top of each other. You hear about the overcrowding then you see it. But it is no surprise if you have been following the prison crisis in California. The system is in crisis, something the state itself has created. And that's with its collective eyes wide open.
Dan Walters, columnist for the SACRAMENTO BEE, wrote an excellent column on this problem: "State of Denial on Prisons Boomerangs" (August 5, 2009). As Walters points out the state has committed itself to a tough-on-crime stance which translated means that everyone who has committed any crime is locked up: violent and nonviolent offenses included. That stance on crime has produced a prison system that has grown from 20,000 inmates to an astounding 160,000 inmates over the last 30 years. At approximately $48,000 a year to house one inmate you can see why the state of California is in the financial straits it is today. With this level of overcrowding, running at 190% capacity, the state is being sued daily by many and being fined, federally, for refusing to remedy the situation. But at the same time you have inmates on top of inmates. It's a recipe for violence.
Can nonviolent offenders, who are largely inmates serving time for drug offenses and property crimes and parole violators with technical violations, be punished through intermediate sanctions often referred to as community corrections? Such offenders would serve their time in communities where they do community service and be in a position to make things right with their victims through victim offender mediation programs. It is clear the time has come to do something radical with this badly broken system. Experts have agreed time and again through various commissions that we must commit ourselves to reform on a systemic level. What we don't need is another blue ribbon commission to study the problem again and come up with the same recommendations.
In the 1990's when I served as state director of Justice Fellowship, the legislative arm of Prison Fellowship, we wrote legislation urging that the state of California embrace community corrections as a first step towards implementing restorative justice. Legislation was passed and signed in 1994, AB 99x, which put a basic community corrections statute on the books. But even with that legislation becoming law community based sanctions for nonviolent offenders are not the norm today. That must change. At the very least the diversion of nonviolent offenders to these community based intermediate sanctions is needed. It's complicated business requiring sentencing reform. But it time. The state really has no choice.
With our prisons overflowing there is no wonder we are beginning to see prison riots. The state prison correctional officer's union, CCPOA, often refers to its work as the "toughest beat in the state". If it is the toughest beat in the state it is because the state has let the system run amok. There is a better way and restorative justice principles can guide the state to a saner criminal justice system that is good for victims and communities while holding offenders accountable. On top of that it is cost effective. But those who have blocked this kind of no-nonsense reform in the past, and there were many, need to get out of the way.
That includes the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. This type of change will take bold leadership. Otherwise California will see more prison riots in its 33 prisons. We are a powder keg waiting to happen.