Plan needed for prison overcrowding 

It appears intractable, this problem of overcrowded state prisons, especially because Sacramento’s ideological combatants fancy themselves as either immovable objects or irresistible forces. But solve it our politicians must. If they don’t, a federal judge could take control of the state’s 170,000 prisoners, and no one but the most devilish can relish such a spectacle.

The prison system was built to accommodate half that number, and if current overcrowding doesn’t itself constitute cruel and unusual punishment, it should stir some small compassion in even the most coldhearted. Prisoner advocates and civil libertarians have long agitated for reform, and even if the implied leniency on their agenda isn’t the right penal prescription, at least Judge Thelton Henderson took notice of conditions that simply could not continue.

Henderson already has declared himself in charge of prison health services, a role some observers not unreasonably describe as imperious. Now he has demanded that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger explain in detail exactly how the state will proceed to bring the prisoner population back to the scale for which the prisons were designed. A lower court having nixed the governor’s plan to ship prisoners to other states, the nearing deadline won’t be reached glibly.

One obvious solution is to build more prisons, an idea favored by conservative Republicans. That vision has the clear virtue of housing the existing number of prisoners, though as the state’s population grows over the next decades, feeding even greater inmate numbers, it is possible to anticipate more seam bursting and more irked judges sooner than anyone wanted. Another virtue, this one both economic and political: Some communities, especially rural ones, can prosper with new prisons built in their backyards, and they are not so finely tuned to protest as more affluent communities typically do.

The political left, now guiding Sacramento’s majority Democrats, sees the judge’s demand as an opportunity. This is perfect leverage, goes the reasoning, to relax some of the state’s tough sentencing guidelines, including the "three strikes and you’re out" provision enacted as a constitutional amendment by voters in the last decade.

For his part, Gov. Schwarzenegger, placing all options on his expansive table, shows interest in treating nonviolent criminals as a class apart from murderers, armed robbers and rapists. Hardliners in his own party resist the idea of finding alternative treatment for any felons, but the case can be made on humane and conservative grounds.

Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, for example, has entertained the idea of redefining more crimes as acts committed against individuals rather than upon the state. The concept, rooted in the faith professed by many on the political right, would encourage the restorative power of restitution rather than the supposed justice of time served.

Surely there is common ground. Judge Henderson has made it imperative.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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