When it comes to state spending, one of the biggest boondoggles is our prison budget. California spends almost 11% of its general funding on maintaining its overcrowded prison population, about 25% more than it spends on education. Not only is this insanity helping to bankrupt the state, but it is sacrificing the future of our children. We are simply throwing money down a rat hole in order to warehouse a large population of non-violent offenders, in overcrowded conditions (currently, non-violent offenders make up over 60 percent of the prison and jail population, with drug offenders accounting for about a quarter of the population).
To reverse the mass incarceration policies of the past 40 years and help end wasteful taxpayer spending on a broken system, Senator Jim Webb (D) introduced the National Criminal Justice Act (NCJA) in congress. This Act would establish a bipartisan commission charged with studying the effects of the drug war and prison overcrowding at the national, state, local levels. Its findings and recommendations would then be released in the first comprehensive report since 1965 on the state of criminal justice in America.
The bill is supported by organizations across the political spectrum, from the NAACP and the ACLU to the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Unfortunately, like most bills in congress these days, partisan belligerent has stopped the NCJA dead in its tracks. Given the opportunity to champion a more fiscally responsible approach to criminal justice, Senate Republicans put their foot squarely on the breaks and said hell no.
Republicans claimed they voted against the NCJA because it would encroach on state’s rights. In a slew of interviews following the vote, opposing Senators had virtually nothing to say about the state of the criminal justice system in the US or its effect on states’ budgets. Instead, they simple criticized the bill for overstepping its authority.
A recent editorial in the New York Times admonishes the short-sightedness of Republican’s for refusing to support the Act (see below). For a group that is so dogmatic about slashing spending, their refusal to even look at ways to reduce wasteful prison spending is the height of hypocrisy.
Falling Crime, Teeming Prisons
NY Times Editorial, 10/30/2011
Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, has a smart proposal to create a bipartisan commission to review the nation’s troubled criminal justice system and offer recommendations for reform. The National Criminal Justice Commission Act would be a valuable first step toward reducing crime as well as punishment. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans derailed the bill recently, with some falsely claiming that it would encroach on states’ rights.
As a means of controlling crime, America’s prisons are notoriously inefficient and only minimally effective, often creating hardened criminals out of first-time offenders. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In the past generation, the imprisonment rate per capita in this country has multiplied by five. There are 2.3 million Americans in prisons and jails. Spending on prisons has reached $77 billion a year.
While crime has gone down notably, just 10 to 25 percent of the decline can be credited to the increase in imprisonment. The rest is from the waning of the crack epidemic, the aging of the baby boomers and other factors.
Even as the prison population has grown, less than half of the inmates are serving time for violent crimes. Far too often, prison has become a warehouse for people with drug or alcohol addiction. More than half of the population has some form of mental illness. Without proper addiction and psychiatric treatment, many end up back in prison soon after their release.
The incarceration rate has had a devastating effect on minority communities. African-Americans, who make up one-eighth of the population, now make up about 40 percent of those in prison. African-American men have a one-in-three chance of spending a year or more in prison. The trend affects whole communities, depressing earnings and increasing recidivism.
There are, however, ways to end this cycle of incarceration. This could be done by reducing sentences for nonviolent offenses, ending mandatory minimum sentences and cleaning up drug markets nationally. Reasonable senators should support the bipartisan commission that Senator Webb is calling for, which would cost only $5 million and could help bring about compelling reforms.
In the video below, former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger(R) in 2010 state of the state speech talks about how 11% of the general budget is spent on prisons and only 7.5% on education.