Monday, May 30, 2011

Cruel and Unusual: California’s Educational/Justice System

Overcrowded California Prison
California already has an adult illiteracy rate of 23%, a figure that is likely to grow as adult-education classes are slashed in the desperate scramble to close California’s remaining $15.4 billion budget gap. This will exacerbate a trend that began in 2009, when the state relaxed restrictions on how school boards spend state money. According to the Bay Citizen, 75% of California’s school districts have already made cuts to adult education since the spending restrictions were lifted.

California’s high illiteracy rate reflects, in part, its high incarceration rate. It is estimated that more than 60% of adult prisoners, and over 80% of juvenile convicts, are functionally illiterate. Considering that those who receive reading support classes have a 16% recidivism rate, compared with 70% for those who do not receive any reading support (see the Educational Cyber Playground website), it would make fiscal sense to redirect funding from incarceration to education, particularly adult education. Boosting funding for k-12 literacy programs might also help reduce the number of first-time offenders.

Theoretically, this could happen as a result of the recent Supreme Court ruling requiring the state to reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates. At a cost of nearly $20,000 per prisoner per year (see Legislative Analyst’s Office report), simply releasing or paroling 33,000 prisoners could save the state as much as $660 million per year, plenty to bolster the adult education program and maybe even provide a little extra for K-12 education.

Of course this is pie in the sky. While the right wing has fanned the flames of hysteria with paranoid fantasies of murderers and rapists being dumped into family-friendly communities, all early-release prisoners must be signed-off by the governor, who is not dumb enough to release any convicted rapists, molesters or murderers, as it would likely come back and bite him in the ass. Indeed, few prisoners are likely to be released at all. The state has at least two years to reduce its current population of 143,435 inmates down to 109,805 (still far above its 80,000 inmate capacity), and the possibility of petitioning for further extensions. Most of the reductions will occur through transfers to county jails, thus deferring costs to the counties, or to out of state for-profit facilities. More reductions will likely occur by transferring juveniles in adult lockup to the California Youth Authority, or to county youth facilities, pushing many nonviolent youth offenders back into the public school system and increasing its financial needs.

In spite of logic or common sense, Samuel Alito, in his dissenting opinion, said the decision was “gambling with the safety of Californians,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, while Republican assembly leader Connie Conway (Tulare), said Californians “could be at serious risk of violent crime.” Antonin Scalia, in his dissenting opinion, said “terrible things are sure to happen” (San Francisco Bay Citizen).

The only terrible thing that is going to happen is that California is going to continue to lock up its residents at one of the highest rates in the U.S. (458 per 100,000), which has the highest incarceration rate in the world (502 per 100,000), at an enormous financial and human cost to taxpayers, families and communities. Considering that most inmates are in for nonviolent offenses, particularly drug offenses that can more cheaply and humanely be addressed through drug rehab programs and education, and considering the desperate fiscal state of the state, there is really no justification continuing to lock up so many people.

One also might consider who is the bigger threat to Californians: 33,000 nonviolent offenders allowed back on the streets or 600,000 millionaires and numerous corporations that refuse to pay their share of the taxes? Alito and Scalia could be lumped into the latter group, not only for their wealth, but for their utter disregard for the safety of the prisoners themselves. Indeed, the main reason for the Supreme Court ruling was that conditions for inmates are so horrific that incarceration in California is considered cruel and unusual punishment. Suicidal prisoners are held in phone booth-size holding pens without toilets, while mentally ill prisoners sometimes must wait up to a year for treatment. A single prison doctor may have a caseload of 700 inmates. Medical care is so deplorable that it, alone, is responsible for a death per week (Los Angeles Times).

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