THE NATIONAL PULSE
For State Prisons, West Isn’t Best
California clogs its jails while New York’s court reform frees funds
BY JACKIE ROTHENBERG
CUTTING PRISON COSTS ISN’T SOMETHING you want to do without a firm sense of direction. And maybe the direction is geographical, not political. “In deciding how to resolve correction’s
impact on the budget crisis, the choice lies not between left and right, but east and west,” says Malcolm
C. Young, a visiting scholar at Northwestern University
School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic in Chicago.
Young, author of a June report, Controlling Corrections
Costs in Illinois: Lessons from the Coasts, is nudging policymakers to look east. In it he outlines strides made in
New York, where, he says, a pragmatic and flexible approach has lowered corrections costs, and missteps in
California, where adherence to punitive sentencing
laws and a powerful corrections lobby keep both expenses and incarceration rates in an out-of-control spiral.
Crime rates are down in all three states: Between
1995 and 2007, violent and property crime rates in New
York dropped by 51 percent and 47 percent, respectively; California saw a decrease of 46 percent and 38 percent; and the numbers in Illinois fell 46 percent and
But here’s where things take a sobering turn: During
that same time, California’s prison population jumped
31 percent and Illinois saw an increase of 20 percent.
New York, meanwhile, had a decline of 9 percent.
In August, a panel of federal judges ordered California to cut its prison population by about 27 percent
within two years, saying the state failed to comply with
previous orders to fix the system and reduce crowding.
The state plans to appeal the decision in Coleman v.
THE GOTHAM APPROACH
IN THE MEANTIME, NEW YORK’S INCARCERATION RATES
could continue to drop. A newly enacted reform of the
state’s rigid “Rockefeller drug laws” will essentially
scrap mandatory sentences for drug crimes and restore
judicial discretion in many cases.
New York’s achievements, despite more lenient incarceration and sentencing practices, belie the popular
belief that locking people up ensures public safety,
Young says. The notion is simplistic and inaccurate, he
says, noting, “If we could just break through that myth,
we’re halfway there.”
According to Young, the numbers reflect a very basic
premise that is embraced in New York: Many low-level
offenders simply don’t need to be locked up. And a
high percentage of inmates (national estimates generally range between 50 and 75 percent) report a history
of substance abuse. Given those numbers, Young advocates an emphasis on drug treatment and rehabilitation,
The population at San Quentin and other California prisons
has increased 31 percent even though crime rates dropped.