In my three decades in law enforcement, I have watched as needlessly harsh penalties have overcrowded our prisons, bankrupted our state, and fed a costly and unnecessary cycle of crime. As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently put it, there are simply “too many people in jail for too long, and for not necessarily good reasons.” What’s worse, overincarceration is making Californians less safe, not more.
Gov. Jerry Brown has always been willing to make the difficult choices necessary to address this great state’s challenges. What we need now are systemic reforms that reduce incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession. We can’t afford to revert to the solutions implemented in the 1990s that led to overcrowding in the first place. Spending an additional half-billion dollars on prison beds and staffing will only feed the fundamental problem of overincarceration. The California Legislature should reject this proposal and instead make modest, systemic changes that would reduce the prison population safely and for the long term.
Supporters of this enormous expense claim it’s needed to reduce overcrowding in our prisons to comply with the federal court’s order – and that the only alternative is the “early release” of 10,000 inmates.
This simply isn’t true. California is on track to meet the court order by the end of the year. According to court records, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has already reduced the number of inmates in California’s prisons by 4,819 by placing offenders in fire camps and out-of-state prisons. To comply with the court order, the state need only reduce the prison population by another 4,817 inmates by Dec. 31.
There are better, safer and more immediate ways to reach this target without dumping hundreds of millions of additional tax dollars into incarceration. In fact, the state is already rolling out a program to apply “earned time” credits to inmates participating in rehabilitative programming and for good behavior. The court indicates that allowing inmates to earn credits will incentivize participation in rehabilitation and result in a reduction of 5,385 prisoners by the end of the year – more than adequate to achieve the court-ordered level.
These credits can be applied safely. Just ask Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, who was one of many national experts who testified in California’s prison-overcrowding case. He testified that incentivizing inmates to earn release through credit programs can be done safely.
The state should stick with credits, and it should also finally address the need for sentencing reform. For a start, the Legislature should change the penalty for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor (reducing the penalty from a maximum three-year jail term down to one year). As of April 2013, the corrections department reports there were more than 4,100 people in state prison whose most serious offense was drug possession for personal use – at an annual cost of more than $210 million. Meanwhile, community treatment and drug rehabilitation programs go unfunded.
As the elected district attorney of San Francisco, my emphasis is on strategically deploying prosecutorial resources to focus on serious and violent crime, and on advancing crime-reducing strategies for low-level offenders. With this approach, San Francisco has lowered the number of drug prosecutions by 69 percent and dramatically increased the use of diversion programs and community-based supervision.
I have seen firsthand the impact of drug use on communities, the devastation of addiction, and the correlation between addiction and other crimes. Time and again, I have seen low-level drug offenders arrested and convicted, spend a few months or years incarcerated, and then come out and go right back to a life of drug addiction and crime.
Cycling addicts in and out of jail does not reduce crime or make the public safer. It makes it harder for them to get their lives back on track and become contributing members of our community. It’s time to do something different.
To make our communities safer, California must invest that half-billion dollars in education, treatment and job training. Our families can’t afford to waste another cent on failed, outdated solutions.
George Gascón is the district attorney for San Francisco.