The California prison system now is overwhelmed because of a series of laws enacted by politicians, fearful of being labeled “soft on crime,” who “react to sensationalistic coverage of a crime with knee-jerk, quick-fix answers,” says Joe Domanick of the USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism. “Only years later do the mistakes, false assumptions and unexpected consequences begin to emerge, and then the criminal justice system is forced to deal with the mess created by the bad lawmaking,” Domanick writes in the Los Angeles Times.
Under California’s “three strikes” law, tens of thousands of inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes are serving out long second- and third-strike sentences, as well as thousands more behind bars because minor crimes were turned into felonies with mandatory minimum sentences, says Domanick. Now, with an inmate population of 173,000, the prison budget has skyrocketed 79 percent, to $8.5 billion, becoming the fastest-growing category in the state budget and a factor in a $14-billion deficit. He says Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s idea of an early release for 22,000 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes should get “serious attention rather than panicky headlines that lead to bad criminal justice laws.”