David Beck-Brown - Writer - The High Cost of Prison Overcrowding

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David Beck-Brown

  Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown
(Political Cartoon by David Beck-Brown)

The High Cost of Prison Overcrowding

By David Beck-Brown
San Diego Union Tribune, April 27, 2006

Last month, a state Senate budget subcommittee projected the current 170,000 California prison population needed to be revised upward to 180,000 by 2010. This month, it was again revised – to 193,000 inmates by 2011.

It is less expensive to check into a Motel 6 and to eat out than to house an inmate in a California prison. The annual cost of incarcerating one inmate is over $36,000 and rising. The prison budget is $8.2 billion, and an additional $2 billion to $4 billion is needed to “build out” the overcrowding problem. This is more money than the state spends on higher education.

Let's put a face on this costly incarceration. Inmate Frank is serving 25-years-to-life sentence in a California prison as a repeat offender under the 1994 three-strikes law. Past attempts to revise the three-strikes law have failed.

Frank's criminal rap sheet is as thin as tissue paper. Many career criminals have rap sheets as thick as phone books that can fill library shelves. Frank, however, was caught stealing a bicycle from an open garage for a $6 fix. Had it been my garage, I would have given him the bum's rush or perhaps have struck him with a 2x4. Then I would be the felon with a strike or two and facing a possible third strike and 25 to life in prison. Frank, however, was given one strike and two years probation. While on probation he stole another bicycle and got a second strike and a four-year prison term. While in prison, he paid $20 for a fix costing $6 on the street and was caught with a syringe. He was given a third strike and his current 25-years-to-life sentence. This is a death sentence for middle age inmates.

Frank may be stupid but California voters are flipping the bill for keeping him in prison. It will cost us a minimum of $1 million for Frank's prior drug addiction.

A study by the Integrated Substance Abuse Program at UCLA shows that nonviolent offenders who complete drug treatment save the state money. Californians save $4 for every $1 they invest in drug treatment for people who complete the treatment. Over the past five years, the treatment option has saved Californians about $800 million, a huge sum.

According the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, last February, California had 7,813 inmates serving three-strike sentences, including 2,399 whose latest felony was a property crime, and 1,292 whose latest conviction was a drug crime.

Who doesn't remember Gov. Schwarzenegger's TV commercials warning us how 26,000 dangerous criminals would be released from prison if the three-strikes laws were modified? The state Attorney General's Office put the number closer to 4,000 inmates who would be eligible for a criminal case review.

No dangerous felon would have been set free. The three-strike inmates would apply for a case review within a limited time period, not to exceed a few months. These criminals would be exposed to all past crimes dismissed during the plea-bargaining process. The older charges would be reopened and eligible for prosecution.

This is a bad investment. Incarcerating people such as Frank under our three-strikes laws is not cost-effective. The law needs to be amended to include only violent career criminals, not thieves and substance abusers such as Frank.


Beck-Brown is prison-reform chair with the San Diego-based A New PATH (Parents For Addiction Treatment & Healing). PATH is a member organization of the Sacramento-based Coalition for Effective Public Safety.