California’s Prison Problem

A federal judge has ordered California to cut the size of its largest-in-the-nation prison system by almost 43,000 inmates. The system is overcrowded, poorly run (serial killer Charles Manson managed to get drugs into prison), and violent. Reducing the level of overcrowding probably would make things better for prison managers and save taxpayer money.

But there’s enormous risk involved: California brought its crime rate under control in the 1990s in large part by locking up a very large percentage of its criminal population. Today, the state is pretty safe. Shedding this many inmates — even though some will end up in county and city lockups — will inevitably let some bad criminals get back on the street, where they will commit more crimes. After all, very few people end up in prison without violent records — about 60 percent of “non-violent” offenders have violent offenses on their rap sheets.

Given its budget woes, however, California may want to use the judicial order and the crisis it will create as an opportunity to innovate. Rather than simply try to hang on to as many baddies as possible in county lockups or hastily constructed new prisons, the state should redouble efforts to improve and expand its parole system.

In Boston and in California’s own Orange County, strict, continuous monitoring of parolees and those on probation — through unannounced home visits, frequent random drug tests, mandates to work, curfews, and the like — has been pretty effective in reducing recidivism. But the programs haven’t spread or even been maintained where they are successful because they are quite expensive (although cheaper than prisons) and tend to blur the line between police and parole officers in a way that doesn’t make members of either profession comfortable.

A great many criminals, in any case, misbehave because they either believe they won’t get caught or, more often, don’t think about the risks. Continually forcing convicted criminals to think about the risks of their actions through intense community monitoring has great potential. California should use the current crisis not only to let people out of its prisons but also to strengthen its overall efforts at monitoring released prisoners.