***This article originally appeared on TheBlaze under the title Funding Prison Reform Works - Read It There***
The most recent California statistics on paroled prisoner recidivism are out and its good news. From a peak of 67.5% in 2010 to 44.6% in 2016 it is clear something is working in California’s prison system. What this means is almost 23% less of California parolees reoffend within three years of their release from prison. At a cost exceeding $60,000 per year for one inmate the economic savings are obvious. What is not so obvious is the long term societal benefits of less repeat crime. Not only are there less victims of crime, there are indirect benefits as well. The formerly incarcerated work, pay taxes and most importantly are able to parent their children. There is at long last, real hope we can reverse the revolving door of re-incarceration that has plagued our state (and country) for more than thirty years.
It all started with the fear fed to us by advocates of anger policies in the 80’s and 90’s. “Career Criminal” and “Three Strikes” laws along with the “War on Drugs” led to a quadrupling of our prison population causing the system to house almost 200% of what it was designed for despite massive prison construction during the same time period. A dear friend of mine, Daniel is his name, was one of the many inmates that were sent out of state to deal with overcrowding. He was housed in Arizona and Oklahoma. Far from family and friends he rarely had visitors, which made it very difficult to hold onto relationships that might have provided a support system for him upon his release. This is not the way to treat someone you hope will never go back to prison.
It took the United States Supreme Court to put an end to this retribution binge. In Brown vs. Plata, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in ordering California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of capacity. In doing so Justice Kennedy found that the overcrowding was a violation of the Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause as it was responsible for living conditions described as “wretched misery.”
When forced to act the politicians passed AB-109 which reduced some overcrowding by shifting the burden of housing nonviolent offenders to county jails – which didn’t really change the incarceration rates, it only prolonged the shell game. Real reform fell to the people in the form of criminal justice initiatives on the ballot. Propositions 36, 47 and 57 all provided sensible ways to reduce the prison population while still emphasizing public safety. Passed with substantial majorities these measures have now withstood the test of time and proven the wisdom and decency of California voters. Despite dire warnings from tough on crime advocates, state wide crime statistics remain close to historic lows, particularly for violent crimes. Still, individual cases are paraded through the media to stoke the dying flames of retribution. However, it would appear that the “Willie Horton Syndrome” has played itself out as voters are no longer easily swayed by worn out fear mongering tactics.
California has also chosen to invest new money in rehabilitation programs. During the same time period that recidivism dropped nearly 23%, funding for rehabilitation has gone from $355 million to $482 million. But the real heroes in this struggle are the men and women of goodwill that volunteer for a multitude of NGO’s providing various educational, vocational and life skill services to prisoners returning to our communities. One such program is The Urban Ministry Institute that provides a course of study that is the equivalent of a Master’s Degree in Theology. Recidivism statistics for participants in this program are an astonishing 6.2%. Another is CRI-HELP, which is a residential drug treatment center, that Daniel went to after his release. He was able to live there for 30 days before transitioning to a state sponsored sober living home for six months. In his case it turned out to be a wise investment that he greatly appreciated. Almost three years later he is a thriving independent business man, taxpayer and prominent advocate for those very programs that likely saved him from re-offending.
There is hope for even the least of us, and we all benefit from recognizing our common humanity. Treating our fellow human beings humanely, no matter who they are is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. When Daniel paroled out, he had nothing but the clothes on his back, and an opportunity given to him by the taxpayers. Today he is an inspiration to others as he continues to pay it forward. With every person we save from prison we are not only being smart on crime, we are also touching countless lives for the good of us all.
Written by: Philip Remington Dunn – a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.