Two broad American social trends of the 1990s - a get-tough approach to crime and get-better commitment to education - are colliding in California, with some possible lessons for the country as a whole.
At issue is legislation to strengthen education within California prisons, which house more inmates than any other system in the country, except Texas.
The bill's fate could be indicative of whether the politics of crime in the US is shifting back slightly toward rehabilitation, after a decade of strict emphasis on punishment.
But beyond that, the California effort will show whether a commitment to better education stops at the jail-cell door, say supporters of prison education, despite ample evidence that education increases the likelihood a prisoner will be law-abiding once out of prison.
The California reform bill must be signed or vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis by the end of the month. And while the governor has given no indication of his leaning, his reputation as an astute reader of the public mood, as well as his credentials as a crime fighter and education backer, have given his decision added weight.
"This will be a key test," says Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley, "of the zero-sum notion, which says that if you help prisoners you must be ignoring victims."
That axiom, say a number of criminologists, has been at work in the US for much of the past decade. It has led, for instance, to the removal of many programs aimed at helping prisoners, ranging from cuts in routine privileges to a paring back of general-literacy and higher-education programs in most state prison systems.
Such cuts were driven in part by a sentiment that prisoners had been coddled and that it was time to reemphasize prisons' main purpose of punishment.
Now, though, things are changing.
The nation's crime crackdown and increase in prison population have been going on for enough years now that the number of prisoners being released back into society is surging across the country.
About half a million former inmates reenter society nationally each year. In California, more prisoners are being released each year than were in the state's entire prison system 20 years ago.
So now, the question is becoming how to keep prisoners from continuing lives of crime once outside of prison.
"You can be as tough on crime as you want, but the fact is that most prisoners are going to leave prison," says Art Perle, a California prison-education specialist involved in crafting the new prison-education bill. "The question is what to do to reduce criminal activity once inmates leave their cells."
Mr. Perle and other experts cite numerous studies that show education programs are one of the most effective tools in reducing the rate at which former prisoners return to criminal activity.
Nonetheless, the pattern in recent years has been to cut education. In 1994, for instance, inmates were removed from eligibility for Pell grants for college, which had enabled many previously to pursue college degrees while behind bars.
And in most states throughout most of the 1990s, prison-education funding and staffing for basic literacy programs did not keep up with rising prison populations.
"In most cases, prison-education budgets have held flat or lost ground, which amounts to an overall decline," says Steve Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association.
Nonetheless, some criminologists see signs of renewed interest in prison education as a way to help keep future crime rates down.
"There is a growing recognition that the cost of the rise in prison populations is pretty severe, and there are attempts now to find ways to rebuild these education programs," says Charles Wellford, professor of criminology at the University of Maryland in College Park.
"Is education a comfort for prisoners - a way to coddle them - or does it make sense because it enhances public safety?" asks Jim Mayer of the Little Hoover Commission, a California agency charged with improving government efficiency. "We think better education is consistent with being anticrime," says Mr. Mayer. The Little Hoover Commission is one of a number of organizations backing the reform bill in California.
The bill would break with tradition and remove prison education from the authority of prison wardens in California. It would establish a new board of education to oversee all education activities in prisons. While the new board would exist within the Department of Corrections and be funded by that department, its staff would largely come from outside the department.
The state's college and university systems, for instance, would each appoint a member of the board, as would the governor and other figures of the state Legislature. And the board would appoint a state superintendent of prison education.
Erosion of education funding
Under the current system, prison education has suffered erosion of funding and personnel, say critics. For an inmate population today of about 160,000, the prison education system has 600 teachers. Perle says the system had 800 teachers 15 years ago, for a prison population of 30,000.
"The California prisons are more antieducation than any prison system I've ever seen," says Tom Gehring, director of the Center for the Study of Correctional Education at California State University, San Bernardino. Education in prisons, says Mr. Gehring, "amounts to nothing more than window dressing."
The state Department of Corrections denies that, though it makes no apologies for making security its top priority.
The state's powerful Correctional Peace Officers Association, which once supported the reform bill, is now officially "neutral." The state's Department of Corrections has taken no position on the bill.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society