Prison Population Nears 100,000 Mark in California

`Lock 'em up' mentality thrives; need for criminal-justice reforms cited

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CALIFORNIA this week is expected to slam its prison doors on a historic but dubious statistic - its 100,000th person behind bars. That is 42,000 more prisoners than are in New York prisons. It is 40,000 more than in all federal penitentiaries combined. It is more than in any country in the Western world.

How the state copes with the most dramatic increase in prison population the nation has ever known is emblematic of a problem confronting lawmakers from coast to coast - one that will be a premier issue in the 1990s.

A decade of increased drug arrests, tougher sentencing laws, and other factors has filled most prison yards faster than concertina wire can be hooped. Now many states face an added dilemma: They don't have enough money to build new facilities - or operate the ones they have.

Recommended: Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons

Alternatives to prisons

In Michigan, two prisons are being closed to help trim costs, and the state is reevaluating how many new ones it wants to build. In Massachusetts, a task force has recommended centralizing the criminal justice system, establishing uniform sentencing guidelines, and pursuing alternatives to incarceration to help ease overcrowding and cut costs.

Numerous states are looking at ``boot camps,'' house arrest, halfway houses, and other programs for nonviolent inmates to reconcile bulging cell populations with gaunt budgets.

``The budget crunch will encourage an increased look at community-based programs and other alternatives,'' says Donna Hunzeker, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. ``The problem is balancing that with the strong public desire to be safe from crime.''

Indeed, while states are looking at alternatives, there is no wholesale shift away from a tough attitude on crime. A ``lock'em up'' attitude remains dominant. Some $7.5 billion will be spent on new prisons at the state and local level over the next two years.

California may present the purest test of whether these seemingly disparate forces can be balanced. Its prison system, now at about 180 percent of capacity, is one of the most overcrowded.

The state over the next 16 months faces a budget deficit of historic proportions, most recently estimated at $12.6 billion. Although spending on corrections represents only 7 percent of the state budget, it has been the fastest-growing expenditure.

Yet much of the California public - and thus of the state's top politicians - doesn't want to back off being Alcatraz-tough on crime. Among Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's first initiatives in office was to urge that sentences for convicted rapists be increased. He has also proposed boosting the corrections department's budget next year, one of the few programs to receive a hike.

``For the immediate future, you are not going to let criminals roam the streets,'' says gubernatorial aide Franz Wisner. ``You are going to build prisons to be sure they pay their debt to society.''

In the 1980s, California's prison population quadrupled. The boom behind bars was spurred by several factors: an increase in drug arrests and drug-related crime; tougher sentencing; an unusually high rate of parole violators being returned to cells; overcrowding in local jails (Los Angeles County houses more prisoners than 45 states), which results in some inmates ending up in state institutions.

To accommodate the bulge, the state, led by then law-and-order Gov. George Deukmejian, launched the largest state prison construction program in US history. Nine new prisons have been built since the early 1980s, three more are under construction, and the money for another five has been authorized.

But despite all the bricks and bars, beds keep filling up. Roughly 200 new inmates enter the system each week. The California Department of Correction projects that by 1996 the state prison population will grow to 173,000. To meet this growth and bring overcrowding to a ``manageable'' level, CDC estimates 20 new institutions will have to be built beyond those now planned.

``We will never build our way out of this problem,'' says Grover Trask II, Riverside County district attorney, who headed up a blue ribbon panel on prisons last year. ``Even if we could find more money to build prisons and jails, we would fill them to capacity. The criminal justice system is not going to solve the crime problem.''

Changing parole

Modest alternatives are being considered, some of them suggested by the blue-ribbon panel. State Sen. Robert Presely is pushing legislation that would encourage housing nonviolent offenders in local communities, where they could have more access to drug rehabilitation, literacy training, and other programs. The Democratic chairman of a joint legislative committee on prison construction and operation argues this would be cheaper than locking them behind state bars and would improve their chances of not r eturning to crime.

Senator Presely and others are also looking for ways to keep cells from filling up with parole violators. Ideas here: do away with parole for certain low-level criminals; reduce parole time for others; set new parole standards.

Some believe the state needs a far more dramatic shift away from prison building to programs that emphasize rehabilitation, prevention, and sanctions short of incarceration. Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Deliquency in San Francisco, contends a decade of ``locking them up'' in California has not reduced the crime rate.

Others, however, argue it has kept the lid on crime. As Joe Sandoval, the CDC's secretary of youth and adult corrections, puts it: ``We have 100,000 people who aren't out there committing crimes.''

But what about the overcrowding? Mr. Sandoval admits the numbers are sobering. ``The top concern of people in this state continues to be crime. We're in a position of either having to raise the money to house them or laws are going to have to change.''

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