Is Prison Overcrowding Actually a Bad Thing?

[By Marc Debbaudt]

While thinking about the debacle known as Prop. 47, it occurred to me to ask how we actually got into this situation. As I detailed in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, California’s Prop. 47 revolution: Voters were sold a bill of goods, Prop 47 is nothing but a piece of deceptive social engineering. The proponents called this piece of legislation “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” when in reality it had absolutely nothing to do with safety at all. How could anyone believe that reducing felonies to misdemeanors could possibly make our neighborhoods and schools safer? The voters were misled. The proponents thrust upon us a piece of legislation that does not create any clear benefits to society, but instead benefits only drug addicts and thieves.
So I began thinking, what is going on here? Why are we being soft on criminals and letting them benefit at our expense? This appears to be part of a larger malevolent or, at least, misguided social agenda.

Let’s put it in context. First we had the Three Strikes law in 1994. With the passage of this legislation, some people bleated that the state was “locking up pizza thieves for life”. That was a distortion of the truth. The state was locking up criminal recidivists who had at least two prior serious and violent crimes and yet continued to break the law. In other words, the people of this state were saying to three-strikers that they had had enough of recalcitrant violent criminals who continue to offend without sufficient repercussions. Even the apparently low-level theft of a pizza from a pizza delivery boy can evolve into something awful given the array of possible situations that can develop when a thief confronts a victim. Nevertheless, legislation to modify the Three Strikes law was passed making it applicable only to offenses that are considered serious and violent. Thus we began to soften the consequences of crime.

Next, in 2011, the misguided experiment called AB 109 or Realignment was passed. This shifted felons from state prisons to county jails, all in an big effort to reduce prison “overcrowding”. Realignment did not reduce the number of felons; it simply shifted felons to county jails to serve the rest of their sentences. The State did this to pass the costs of housing felons onto the counties. There were no cost savings. County jails were not meant to hold inmates for periods exceeding one year, but thanks to this piece of legislation, county jails are now housing some criminals for 20-plus years which, of course, ultimately reduces the availability of housing for other felons and misdemeanants.

Then Prop 47 followed in November 2014, reducing a host of serious felonies to misdemeanors. With that, there was another brilliant piece of social engineering that our Legislature passed under the radar. It was the reduction of misdemeanors from a potential sentence of 365 days to 364 days. Now you may ask, why would the Legislature do that?

Here’s why: If a crime carries a 365-day sentence, it is considered an “aggravated offense” in Federal Immigration Courts. This increases the likelihood that an immigrant who is here illegally and committed a crime would get deported. Our “compassionate” Legislature decided deporting those here illegally who commit crimes while here is somehow “inhumane.”

Now we learn that a new piece of legislation has been passed in which prosecutors are mandated to consider immigration consequences when making deals with immigrants who are here legally or illegally. In other words, the Legislature wants prosecutors to structure deals to avoid deportation.
The madness doesn’t stop there. Recently, the state decided that non-violent Second-Strikers are to receive early prison release and early parole consideration. Instead of serving 80 percent of their sentence, these individuals are now considered for early release after they have served just 50 percent, or if they are within 12 months of having served 50 percent of their sentence.

By the way, none of these laws considers whether the defendant who is to be released has a violent and lengthy criminal history, a long history of violating parole or probation conditions, or may still pose a danger to society.

Supporters of leniency in sentencing say it’s necessary to reduce prison overcrowding. They want us to believe that prison overcrowding is a legitimate and growing concern and that we must combat it.

But what is prison overcrowding exactly and why is it such a worry?

Before I answer that, we should first address what a prison is. A prison is a place where convicted felons are confined because they committed a crime that showed their unwillingness to live in harmony with others and be law-abiding members of society. We cannot trust them to participate in our community, so we take away their freedom and lock them up. There are three main reasons to incarcerate these law breakers: rehabilitation, punishment, and deterrence. Punishment and deterrence are now anathema to those who tinker with public safety and foist reforms upon us. Today, anything other than rehabilitation is characterized as an inhumane, uncompassionate response to crime – never mind that incarcerated criminals are not committing crimes on the streets.

I have always thought that prison should be so bad that you never want to go there, and so bad that if you are ever sent there you will never want to go back. And the reality is that prisons are bad places. People who commit crimes are forced to sleep in small quarters with individuals who are just like them. It’s hard to sleep or to enjoy your housing with chronic rule breakers surrounding you. I’m not suggesting that we be inhumane and I am certainly not advocating torture or starvation or anything of the sort. I am simply suggesting that prison should not be comfortable or nice and that some discomfort and overcrowding should be tolerated.
So when does overcrowding reach the point that we declare it inhumane and decide that we need to start releasing these law breakers back onto the streets before their sentence is fully served? Who determines how many prison bodies per square-foot is reasonable?
Simply put, I don’t buy the idea that prison overcrowding ever reached the point that it became inhumane or intolerable; California prisons were never stacking prisoners like sardines into a can. Felons deserve to be in prison. Obviously, to the extent you accept the premise of overcrowding, one solution to overcrowding, as some sensibly minded people suggest, is that we simply need more prisons.

Why are prisons overcrowded? Here are some possible answers:

(1) The rate at which criminals are being incarcerated is exceeding the rate at which prisoners are being released or are dying. So, let’s be clear right out of the gate, solving the prison overcrowding problem does not begin to address the increasing crime problem we are facing. In fact, addressing prison overcrowding doesn’t even acknowledge that there are crimes going on outside of prisons or that good, law-abiding people are suffering. It places relieving the stresses of criminal confinement above crime itself. It places concern for the criminal above concern for the victim and community.

(2) Improvements in law enforcement tactics have led to more people being arrested for their crimes. Law enforcement agencies have become much more productive due to increasing technology and more proactive approaches to policing. More criminals caught equals more need for prison space.

(3) The same Legislature that is now letting criminals out of prisons and jails keeps creating new types and classifications of crimes.

(4) Harsher sentences are now being imposed for certain crimes.

In 1994, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) examined prison overcrowding and found that, while overcrowding is a problem in many facilities, it is not known whether it actually had any negative affect on inmates. In other words, maybe it could positively affect inmates. Maybe it makes these individuals want to behave while in prison so they can be released earlier and maybe it motivates them to never commit another crime that would land them back in prison. If recidivism is increasing because our prisons are no longer overcrowded, then maybe overcrowding helps reduce rates of recidivism.
Research from 2003 indicates that prison management style, rather than jail overcrowding, may be related to misconduct. Overcrowding may potentially have a direct effect on prison management by creating a far more stressful environment on the corrections officers and wardens to manage the increased population. It seems to follow logically that we must increase the prison staff – not release criminals – when the prison population increases.

Another study in 2006 found that a high prison population has a direct, negative effect on the psychological state of inmates. Overcrowding has been known to cause stressful situations. But isn’t prison supposed to be stressful? Aren’t negative psychological states appropriate and a predictable consequence for those sent to state prison? I guess our social engineers want us to be sorry prison doesn’t make prisoners happy.

A study on prison population density in Japan found that it had a direct correlation with prison violence rates. This study confirmed the obvious: The more prisoners you have, the more violence you have in prison. I do not understand why this would be a reason to reduce the prison population and release prisoners onto the streets to harm law-abiding citizens. Which is worse: Prison being bad for prisoners, or the physical and emotional harm that released prisoners inflict on victims.
In today’s system, apparently the solution to all the problems caused by prison overcrowding is to reduce the prison sentences and reduce crimes from felonies to misdemeanors in order to make prisoners happier and set them loose in society.

When the media chooses to discuss this topic we are given statistics like: “The United States currently incarcerates 1 in nearly 100 American adults.” That sounds awful, but what if it were presented like this: “Nearly one in 100 American adults commits and is incarcerated for a crime. The media portrays the problem as if the government is excessively locking up Americans, as opposed to properly incarcerating criminals. It’s a subtle distortion of reality. That distortion leads to loaded rhetoric suggesting that those of us who have greater compassion for victims than defendants suffer from “incarceration addiction.” Apparently being tough on crime and criminals is a now a bad thing in our society.
Social engineers claim there are better ways to protect our communities than through mass incarceration. They tout the benefits of rehabilitation and treatment and the promotion of personal responsibility – as though we live in a utopia. They claim there is a way to hold criminals accountable while providing them with an opportunity to get back on their feet. They push community supervision programs and alternatives to incarceration as though these programs work. It all sounds nice.

But the truth is simple; the history of rehabilitation is a history of massive failure. Rehabilitation simply does not work. The fact is, while criminals are incarcerated, they are not committing crimes against good law-abiding people. Isn’t that a good enough reason to put them in prison?

With all of the negative consequences and deceptions from Prop. 47 and Realignment, I shudder at the thought of what’s coming next. Apparently, these reckless social engineers are now turning their efforts to eliminating the bail system, so that everyone will now be out of custody without having to post bail. They will claim poor people are not able to bail out, and the bail system is designed only for the rich. However, they won’t talk about the current availability of own recognizance (OR) release. They won’t talk about cite-out programs, which are the exercise of discretion in using the defendant’s promise, when he is not a threat to the safety of the public, to return to court without posting bail. Instead, they will continue to ignore what is currently in place, just like they did with the Deferred Entry of Judgment, Prop 36, and Drug Court programs when they decided to release untreated drug users and thieves into our communities. They won’t even begin to predict the costs on the administration of justice in the courts with such a reckless proposition.

So, my question is: What is their true goal in pushing their policies of leniency and decriminalization? One can only wonder, given the clear negative impact on the safety and wellbeing of our community and the victimization of law-abiding citizens that directly follows these new social experiments.

For factual information, please read our previous blogs that detail the various problems with Prop. 47 (1) The Public and Private Deception of Prop 47 (2) California’s Proposition 47 – The LA Times Cost Savings Myth (3) Proposition 47 lottery: When will your crime victim number be called? (4) Reaping the Bitter Rewards of Proposition 47 and related blogs (5) Punishment, Not Programs (6) What Realignment Has Done to Restitution Collection and How It Can Be Fixed and (7) Why are victims playing second fiddle to convicted criminals?

Marc Debbaudt is President of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys. He can be contacted at mdebbaudt@laadda.com. The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ADDA, which represents nearly 1,000 Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys.

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