Addicted to prisons

California may be close to establishing a cap in their prison population. This has the potential to force serious drug policy reform.

On july 23, two U.S. District Court judges ordered the convening of a three-judge panel to consider releasing prisoners from California’s alarmingly overcrowded state prison system. The judges’ move raises the possibility that a specific cap on the state’s prison population will come into place within the next few weeks or months.

The governor should order the early release of nonviolent parole violators and require parole officials to review whether community-based measures can address the risks posed by future technical violators. Special legislation to allow early release of nonviolent offenders who are within a few months of completing their sentences also should be considered.

Even these measures will not be enough to free the state from its chronic overuse of prison. To do this, the governor must come before the people and speak the truth about our penal code with his trademark frankness. These are laws written by and for “girlie men.” We must learn to address serious social problems, like drug addiction, homelessness and threatening gang behavior, without indiscriminate recourse to prison. The governor should appoint a sentencing commission staffed with independent experts on crime and law enforcement to overhaul sentencing laws, with a mandate to reduce our reliance on prisons.