By nearly every measure, the California prison system is the nation’s most troubled, says the New York Times, citing overcrowding, inmate violence, recidivism, parole absconders, and the medical system. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency in the system, a move generally reserved for areas hit by natural disasters. James Tilton, the governor’s corrections secretary, describes the system as a “powder keg.” New prisons seem likely; the governor and legislators are seriously contemplating broad changes to the parole system and the establishment of a sentencing guidelines commission like those used by other states to reduce overcrowding and its costs.
Life for corrections officers has become so miserable, their union says, that there are nearly 4,000 vacancies. The scope of the prison problem stems largely from its size. The system houses 173,000 inmates – second-place Texas has 152,500 – and has an $8 billion budget. Most rehabilitation programs have been eliminated, which some criminal justice experts believe has increased the rate of recidivism. “The way our current system works, all you have is sticks,” said Joan Petersilia of the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections at the University of California at Irvine. “But we want to give carrots, too. If in fact you can show us stable housing and drug treatment program for six months, you are off parole. The benefit of that is self-selection. Inmates who are low risk and who are motivated will do it, and then we reduce caseload size and let officers target very violent offenders.”