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Inmate exports

September 30, 2006

A FEW WEEKS AGO, MOST California prison inmates were offered an exciting travel opportunity. Autumn in Michigan can be beautiful, after all, and Louisiana is pleasantly temperate in winter. The views may not be great -- the four walls of a cell -- but all expenses would be paid.

In response to crisis-level overcrowding in California lockups, state officials recently surveyed prisoners to see whether they would be willing to be transferred to correctional facilities in other states. If a prisoner said yes, he was asked to check a box next to the state he would prefer. There were 23 choices, including Michigan and Louisiana.

The travel survey is not part of a new rehabilitation-via-bus-ride program but a last-ditch effort by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to avert a catastrophe in the making. With both the governor and the Legislature unwilling to address the causes of California's prison overpopulation woes, Schwarzenegger is instead going after the symptoms by exporting the problem to the rest of the country.

California's correctional system is a train wreck. It's not just because the state has the highest recidivism rate in the nation, or because 16,000 of its 172,000 inmates are forced to sleep in gyms or hallways, or because its medical system is so wretched that it had to be taken over by a federal receiver. It's because the system fundamentally fails to protect the public by not rehabilitating inmates, while overburdened prisons, jails and courts put dangerous criminals back on the streets long before they should because they don't have the capacity to handle them.

Politicians pay lip service to fixing the prisons but then propose only cosmetic solutions. In June, Schwarzenegger ordered a special session of the Legislature on corrections and laid out a plan to spend more than $1 billion on two new prisons and untold millions more on private community facilities. His plan got nowhere, and the Legislature adjourned without passing a single prison reform bill.

It was probably asking too much to expect lawmakers to take action in an election year. Prison reform is a lose-lose game for politicians; the things that would actually work are unpopular, while more popular strategies -- such as tougher crime laws -- usually make the situation worse. What's necessary is an overhaul of sentencing and parole rules, reducing oversight of nonviolent criminals in order to focus on more dangerous ones. More educational, vocational and drug treatment programs are also needed.

So California may ship inmates out of state. It's a short-term and inadequate fix. Prisoners can only be transferred to another state if they give their permission, which most won't do because it would make family visits difficult or impossible. Contracting with other states to take California's prisoners may help stave off an immediate crisis, but whoever wins the governor's race in November is going to have to make prison reform a top priority. The system, and the public, can't take four more years of inaction.

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