California’s Crisis, Cont.

More good commentary from Sasha Abramsky on the juvenile justice meltdown in California. Posting on the Guardian‘s group blog Comment Is Free, he writes,

A recently passed bill, SB 81 – working largely on the premise that the system is now so bad virtually any alternative would likely be better – provides huge financial incentives to the counties to remove even more of their residents from CYA control, giving $130,000 to counties for each inmate they reclaim. Estimates are that, over the next few years, the CYA population will decline to as few as 1,000, a hard-core of violent offenders, with the rest being diverted into alternative institutions. It’s an extraordinary collapse of a once world-renowned juvenile justice system.

What does all of this have to do with the state’s budget crisis? Well, dollar for dollar not very much: the hundreds of millions spent on state-run juvenile justice institutions is a drop in the bucket when it comes to California’s overall budget. But, symbolically it’s important. For years, California threw good money after bad, propping up a cataclysmically malfunctioning CYA by promising millions of dollars in new investments and innovative programming. And, despite the money, the system went from bad to worse. Only with the recent passage of SB 81 did legislators finally rein in this out-of-control system and redistribute the money to county agencies instead.

As he did in his recent In These Times cover story, Abramsky is here looking at reforms on the juvenile side to see what lessons can be applied to California’s penal system as a whole. If the Division of Juvenile Justice can drastically reduce its population of wards–by 2004 it had dropped to 5,000 from a historic peak of 10,000, then fell to a current estimated daily population of 2,500, and is now heading even further downward thanks to the recently passed SB 81 (which calls for halving the number of wards by transferring all but the most serious offenders to county-level juvenile halls)–then so can the adult side. Doing so makes sense from a moral standpoint, of course, but it would also save a lot of money. And with Governor Schwarzenegger facing a budget crisis, reforming the state’s prison policy would free up a lot of cash.

“Nobody wants the state to abnegate its responsibility for protecting residents and punishing law-breakers,” Abramsky writes. “The question, though, is whether the current bloated prison system is delivering an effective bang for the buck? And, if it isn’t, what alternatives could be developed for lower-end criminals rather than simply warehousing them in prisons, at great expense to the public, for years at a stretch?”

Prison reform as fiscal discipline: it’s a pragmatic appeal, to be sure. But if that’s what it takes to get the purse holders to make some desperately needed changes, then so be it–I’m with Abramsky on this. At the dawn of the era of mass incarceration, people used to remark about rehabilitation that “nothing works.” A few decades later, having seen the disaster that the tough-on-crime movement has wrought, reformers may be entering the age of “whatever works.”

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