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Tough on Crime? Our Wallets Take the Beating

August 09, 2003|David Beck-Brown | David Beck-Brown has worked in federal, state and county detention facilities, as well as the federal witness protection program, since 1977.

Do not blame our prisons for California's financial problems. Blame the voters. California voters have gotten "tough on crime." For years, we have eagerly been sending "evildoers" to prison. In the process, we must pay the price of their incarceration.

Our prisons now are overcrowded, filled in part with men and women who have committed serious crimes, some while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Other inmates are incarcerated for crimes stemming from nonviolent substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness. This growing segment of nonviolent prisoners needs to be redirected from prison and toward mental health care centers. If this is done, people in need of help will get the assistance they so desperately need.

We Californians are tough, all right. We supported "three strikes." We are not afraid to incarcerate nonviolent criminals for 25 years to life -- even if the third conviction is for stealing a slice of pizza.

But we pay the bill for incarcerating people for life. California prisons are designed to house violent criminals and are expensive to build. We have invested in reinforced concrete structures, guard towers and concertina wire. We have paid heavily for state-of-the-art electrical fences surrounding prisons. Community mental health centers cost less money to build than prisons. Care centers do not have the requirements of a heavily armed, maximum-security prison, staffed by professional correctional officers trained to quell riots and keep the status quo.

California voters are responsible for the "law of the land," not the prisons. The prison system operates under the law and therefore must receive all inmates sent to it by our judicial system and by you, the voter. If we want to save taxpayer dollars being spent on incarcerating prison inmates, our laws must be rewritten. Thousands of nonviolent substance abusers, mentally ill and the homeless are filling our prison system.

We would all do better if we were to allow our prisons to do the job they were designed to do. The job of the prison is to detain violent and career criminals in a safe environment away from law-abiding citizens. Let us send other inmates to less expensive facilities and mental health centers.

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