Anyone who believes the passage of the latest prison construction bond (Proposition 54) will relieve overcrowding until the prison system has been reformed and non-incarcerative punishments have been developed can't have read The Times articles of Oct. 9 and 15. Passage of the bond issue (the third) will be interpreted by our intrepid politicians as showing that voters are willing to be asked to approve still more bond issues with, as Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside) said, "no end in sight."
Passage of the bond issue will be interpreted as an endorsement of the growth of the inmate population to 100,000 prisoners by 1995, creating a need for 25 additional prisons after construction of those presently planned has been completed. The Corrections Department thinks the prison population will be even bigger than 100,000 inmates by 1995. That would call for still more prisons.
Passage of the bond issue will mean more hungry children living below the poverty level; fewer job training and development programs; less housing for the homeless; more holes in the safety net of social programs; less effort to remedy our appalling illiteracy rate.
The Gann initiative put a cap on state spending. This cap means that money to maintain all those new prisons must come out of funding that now goes to other services provided by the state. Financing the prisons has already diverted funds from what the Deukmejian Administration considers "lower priority matters" such as health and welfare programs. Maintaining a bigger inmate population will require even deeper cuts in such services.
Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne) is not the first of our legislators to admit that prison crowding has resulted from the unnecessarily harsh sentencing laws passed by politicians vying with each other to see who can be toughest on crime. Nor is Floyd the first of our legislators to add that he isn't about to support any measures to change those overly tough laws. He doesn't want to be called soft on crime.
California has been anything but soft on crime. Our prison population has more than doubled since 1976, growing from 20,000 inmates to more than 55,000. But putting 25,000 additional lawbreakers behind bars has not reduced the crime rate. The rate of repeat crimes committed by released convicts has, in fact, been going up, and the desperately crowded conditions in the prisons probably have a lot to do with that increase. Some truly vicious criminals do, indeed, get off too lightly, and that situation should be remedied. The remedy does not lie in sending more nonviolent, non-assaultive offenders to prison.
The legitimate fear of crime has been heightened by such misleading statements as Gov. George Deukmejian's when he said he was pleased that "in three years, more than 16,000 additional violent criminals had been removed from neighborhoods and sent to state prisons." In actual fact, more than half of those 16,000 prisoners--over 8,000--had been convicted of nonviolent, non-assaultive crimes--this according to the Department of Corrections' figures.
Many of those more than 8,000 prisoners could safely have been put on probation and required to make restitution or to perform community service. If they had been, the need for more prisons would have been reduced. A recent Rand Corp. study found that probationers commit fewer repeat crimes than a comparable group of ex-convicts who have served a prison term. The Rand researchers suggested that intermediate penalties between prison and traditional probation might further reduce repeat crimes.
Such measures won't be developed if we authorize bonds to build more prisons. William Nagel, a former prison administrator, has said, "so long as we build, we will have neither the pressures nor the will to develop more productive answers." He's right. More prisons for more prisoners won't give us better protection from crime, but it will reduce essential services.