Prevent criminal activity, spend less on prisons
Are cost-saving prisons the California dream?
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying to funnel money toward higher education by addressing prison costs in California. Sure, we could save money by running our prisons more efficiently, but no parent dreams that their kid will grow up to live in a well-run prison. The real savings to California—to the budget and in society—lie in reducing the number of people we put in prison.
In the past 30 years, California's population has increased by 62 percent, while our prison population has increased by a 645 percent. Violent crime didn't increase by 645 percent. Two simple steps will get us all back on track.
The first step involves addressing the reasons behind the explosion in incarceration rates. For example, experts know that there is an intimate link between substance use and criminal activity. So it just isn't right that someone in California—who genuinely wants help with his addiction—might wait weeks or often months for a slot in a treatment program, while there's always a bed available in the nearby prison. Dedicating more resources for treatment, and making sure the corrections system understands the recovery process and doesn't put someone back behind bars at the first sign of relapse, would quickly reduce the number of prisoners.
Even more important is to practice prevention first. Behaviors behind criminal activity, like substance abuse and violence, are preventable, not inevitable. To put effective prevention in place, people from multiple agencies—from parks and recreation to public transportation—need to coordinate their efforts. High-level leadership must ask questions that hold people accountable. How is the economic development agency creating jobs in low-income neighborhoods? Is the planning commission putting in zoning restrictions on how many liquor stores and bars can operate in one neighborhood or fostering social connections through community design? How is the park and recreation department strengthening youth leadership through its programming?
In our culture of arrest and imprisonment, it might be shocking to think of youth leadership programs and alcohol zoning restrictions as ways of saving money in the criminal justice system, but that is exactly the effect quality prevention has.
Want proof? Try San Francisco's Truancy Reduction Initiative, which has shown a 20 percent reduction in early childhood truancy by working with parents. Oakland offers the City-County Neighborhood Initiative to engage residents from Sobrante Park in community-strengthening efforts like neighbor-to-neighbor bartering and youth economic development programs. Evaluation data from 2007 shows a more than 40 percent reduction in Sobrante Park's violent crime since the initiative began in 2004, even while overall rates of violent crime in Oakland increased.
Now that's a dream we can all get behind.
Patrick J. Boyd has spent 30 years as a corrections leader in California and recently retired from his post as the San Francisco chief adult probation officer. Rachel Davis is managing director at Oakland's Prevention Institute, where she oversees the CDC-funded UNITY violence prevention initiative.