Editorial: Crowded Prisons Demand Give and Take, Somewhere

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hail-mary attempt to ease California’s overcrowded prisons is facing a serious setback. On Feb. 20, a Superior Court judge ruled that Schwarzenegger’s Oct. 4 invocation of the Emergency Services Act to move California prisoners to private prisons in Arizona and Tennessee violated the state Constitution.

The sentiment behind Schwarzenegger’s call for a state of emergency in 29 of California’s 33 prisons is justified — a system designed to hold 100,000 inmates is currently pushing 172,000, and the state Legislature has yet to act. Even if Schwarzenegger’s proposed $11-billion expansion plan becomes law, it would be years before California’s prisons saw any relief.

The problem lurking in the background of California’s collapsing prison system is one of ideology. California is a “”tough on crime”” state, as its burgeoning prison population illustrates. However, 40 percent of the state’s inmates are nonviolent offenders, and voters continuously fail to heed warnings about a drastically overcrowded system in favor of sound bite-friendly legislation, exacerbating the crisis. Long prison sentences for offenses like drug possession look good on paper, but the current situation requires a pragmatic solution. If California’s politically puissant prison guards’ union continues to drag its heels in the face of a possible shift toward partial privatization of the industry, California officials will have to choose between ideology or a functioning system.

California’s justice system needs to prioritize — quickly. While nonviolent offenders should be punished, the violent offenders are most dangerous to public safety, and should be the focus of the state’s limited resources.