California's prisoner release - Is Sheriff Baca's fear justified?

Will releasing 40,000 prisoners bring about the end of California?

Posted Feb 14, 2010

The notion of releasing some 40,000 California prisoners to relieve overcrowding is milling around Sacramento and now, the Supreme Court. Okay, it's more than a notion, it's a law, but it's being held up for the moment, so let's see what happens.

The prisoners being discussed would be the lowest risk inmates, and as you know from reading some past articles on here, I'm in full support of treatment instead of incarceration. But guess what?! The CA officers' union, and many other public-safety agency's are opposed.

A few days ago, I heard LA Sheriff Lee Baca talk about not wanting "these [drug users and thieves] out on the street unsupervised under any circumstances." The question is, is Mr. Baca's viewpoint justified?

The law, drugs, and incarceration

I understand and support the notion that when people break the law, especially by hurting others, they need to be reprimanded. It's how we keep people in line (to some extent) an how we keep the dangerous ones away from the rest of society. But it's Baca's general problem with low-risk drug users and thieves that has me worried.

First of all, more than 50% of the U.S. population has experimented with drugs (when marijuana is included). This would, technically, qualify a whole lot of Americans as "drug-users." In fact, both this President and our last one were drug users at some point in their lives, and I'm pretty sure that a cursory examination of any law enforcement force would reveal quite a few ex-drug users.

Still, less than 10% of Americans develop real drug-use problems, and that's more likely the population Baca was referring to. Given the fact that approximately 20% of our prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses alone, I think it's time Mr. Baca reevaluated his thinking. These people did nothing wrong except for use drugs, which are illegal, therefore landing them in jail. Their danger to society is, at most, their reduced productivity. Add to that the 10%-20% who are in jail for drug-addiction-related property-crime, and you start seeing the reason behind our prison population explosion. When it comes to this latter category of criminal, I see Mr. Baca's point, to some extent - These prisoners did hurt someone, by stealing their stuff. Still, I believe that if our goal is to stop their stealing, not imprison our citizens, than drug-addiction treatment, not incarceration, is the way to go.

How do we fix the drug-use prison problem?

One of the arguments against the imminent release I heard today was the economic downturn and the fact that "even doctors can't get a job right now, so these criminals will just go back to what they know best, committing crime." Well guess what again?! I have a solution!!!

Let's release the prisoners, but then increase the capacity in drug treatment facilities and other transition settings. This will create jobs, even for those lowly unemployed M.D.s, and will get a good portion of the released inmates the kind of supervision they really need, the kind that could actually turn their lives around.

Social services, job training, and education are all in dire need of funding, and they could actually make our state better by reducing crime through means aside from incarceration. This reduction in crime will save us money by allowing the legal system to focus on dangerous criminals, the ones that inflict violent crime, though I have a feeling that some of those will be helped in the process.

Just an idea, but I think it's a good one. I'd love to hear your take on this...


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About the Author

Adi Jaffe, Ph.D., is a lecturer at UCLA and the CEO of IGNTD, an online company that produces podcasts and educational programs on mental health and addiction.

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