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Ready or not

Federal and state lockups will release perhaps thousands of inmates next year. L.A. County should prepare.

December 17, 2007

The U.S. Sentencing Commission corrected a subtle injustice last week when it decided to retroactively reduce the sentences of inmates imprisoned for using or selling crack cocaine, making those terms correspond more closely with powder cocaine sentences. When justice is vindicated, even late in the process, it's a victory for everyone. But the victory isn't free.

Several thousand federal inmates currently behind bars on crack convictions will be eligible for release beginning in March -- and some of them could be coming to a street near you. It is pleasant to imagine those people arriving home free of their addictions, fully trained for readily available jobs, rehabilitated by prison and ready to contribute to their communities. It is pleasant -- but a fantasy.

Many will come home with addictions intact, unprepared to take their place in society and further damaged, rather than reformed, by their stay in prison. States, counties and cities must choose now between ramping up programs for drug treatment and job training or paying a steeper price later as they deal with untreated addicts replenishing the population of skid rows or jails. Police, at least, must prepare for the influx of released addicts -- but what a foolish waste of resources and lives it would be if cops were the only ones ready to greet the inmates on their return to the streets.

In a stroke of good fortune, California has only 307 inmates in line for release next year under the commission's decision. Los Angeles and adjacent counties have 124. The numbers are significant but manageable -- a minor seismic jolt in the scheme of things. But the inmate-release Big One is on its way.

Later next year, federal judges overseeing California's crowded prisons may free thousands of inmates before their terms are up, and about a third of them will be coming to Los Angeles County. That's in addition to prisoners who already ought to be out. The state's correctional system is so overburdened with drug convicts and violent criminals that it is incapable of even releasing prisoners on time, because officials don't have the staff or technology to properly calculate good-behavior credits.

Meanwhile, inmates aren't getting sufficient mental health or other support, meaning that when they do come out, they are all too likely to take their places on the costly and crazy county merry-go-round: hospital, skid row, handcuffs, court and back to jail.

Los Angeles County may be hit hard by the housing slump and will have little "extra" tax money to spend on the returning addicts and ex-cons. But if supervisors fail to cobble together money now to provide needed care for those soon-to-be discharged prisoners, taxpayers most certainly will be paying a much higher bill later.

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