To: My fellow conservative Republicans in the Legislature
From: Pat Nolan, Assembly Republican leader, 1984-1988
Re: California's prison crisis
I was as "tough on crime" as any of you during my eight terms in the Assembly. I received the Victims Advocate Award from Parents of Murdered Children. I generally favored stronger penalties and also introduced the Death Penalty Restoration Act.
I led the fight to build more prisons.
I was "tough on crime" to make our communities safer.
But then I witnessed reality - inside prison walls. After my conviction in the Shrimpscam investigation, I served 29 months in federal custody. I was appalled to see how little is done to prepare inmates to live healthy, moral lives when they return to society - and 95 percent of prisoners will be released and return to our neighborhoods. I was frustrated that participation in religious programs is often discouraged. And I was shocked to see many people serving long sentences for minor, non- violent offenses.
Our current system of sentences and imprisonment has veered terribly off course. It costs taxpayers plenty but does not make us safer. I'm partly to blame for California's current prison crisis. I supported the expansion of our prison system. But while spending on prisons continues to skyrocket, Californians are no safer than residents of other states that have cut their prison population.
Many officials brag about the drop in California's crime in recent years and claim that it was the result of greater incarceration. But what they don't tell you is that crime dropped everywhere. Indeed, some states that actually cut their prison populations have had a much larger drop in crime than California.
These states have shown that it is possible to cut the costs of prisons while keeping the public safe. The state of New York reduced the number of prisoners while also cutting its violent crime by 63 percent. In New York City, where most of the state's released offenders go, murders dropped from 2,605 in 1990 to 801 in 2007, even as the state was sending fewer offenders to prison.
And last year, even "tough on crime" Texas enacted sweeping reforms of its prison system that allowed it to cancel plans to build three more prisons. Led by two conservative Republicans, Rep. Jerry Madden and Gov. Rick Perry, Texas redirected a large part of the money saved on prison construction into community treatment for the mentally ill and low-level drug addicts.
The Lone Star State will soon cancel contracts to house 1,900 state convicts in county lockups - relieving the overcrowding in the jails and saving $28 million. And recently Texas announced that for the very first time, there is no waiting list for drug treatment.
Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina and South Carolina have reduced their prison populations as well as their crime rates and saved hundreds of millions of dollars. They reserve costly prison beds for violent offenders while punishing low-risk offenders in community facilities.
They realize that prisons are for people we're afraid of, and that it is a waste to fill them with people we're merely mad at. They use new technologies to monitor parolees' whereabouts and behavior, and more effective supervision and treatment programs to help them stay on the straight and narrow. These policies have allowed them to spend less on prisons while improving public safety.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger' s modest prison reform proposals are consistent with what Republican leaders in other states are doing - conservative solutions that limit the growth in prison costs while keeping the public safe. California will spend $10 billion on prisons this year. Are we getting the public safety that would justify this huge expense? Not by a long shot. California's recidivism rate is the highest in the nation: Seven in 10 released prisoners are rearrested. No other business would continue to operate with a failure rate of 70 percent. That is a terrible return on your investment.
But don't blame corrections officers for these problems. They are merely carrying out policies adopted by the Legislature without the funding needed to back up the long sentences. Why do conservatives defend a government system that costs so much and fails so often? You ought to be leading the fight to reform it.
This is an opportunity for you to do what I wish I had done as Republican leader of the Assembly - put conservative principles to work on reforming corrections.