Inmate's Mom: "Isn't There Some Better Way?"

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San Quentin Prison

Flickr: Charles Kremenak

Last week reader Brenda Atchison shared a painful personal story about her son, who is serving time in an Orange County jail for crimes related to his persistent drug addiction.

Atchison wrote in response to a blog post tying California's overcrowded prisons to the state's policy of re-imprisoning parolees for often-minor parole violations. And she connected her family's crisis to California's policy crisis in plaintive terms:

Our prisons are full of addicts that have violated their probations. If we as tax payers are going to foot the bill, why can't we foot the bill to rehabilitate them from drugs? Overfilling our prisons and not getting these people any help is basically institutionalizing them on tax payer's dollar. Isn't there some better way to handle all this?

One answer to Brenda's question is captured in the 2010 documentary film, "It's More Expensive To Do Nothing." The film examines the causes of crime and recidivism, including addiction, and offers examples of successful approaches to get non-violent ex-offenders on track (at much lower cost to us taxpayers). Check out the trailer. Powerful stuff.

One program the film mentions is San Diego's Prisoner Reentry Program, a pilot program funded by a state law, SB 618. San Diego County's District Attorney testified before a state commission this spring about the work her county has done. She encouraged the state legislature to expand the program to two additional counties, as the law proposes. But California has 58 counties; will the other 55 get help launching successful re-entry programs of their own? Here's an assessment of the San Diego program.

Californians have repeatedly told pollsters that they are not interested in spending more on prisons and the state correctional system. Yet we have a crisis on our hands -- both in terms of overcrowding, as the U.S. Supreme Court told us last week, and in the human terms Brenda Atchison describes.

Can we make our penal system more effective and more humane without spending more money? One more idea came this week from Professor Shima Baradaran, who chairs the American Bar Association's Pretrial Release Task Force. In a New York Times op-ed piece on Monday, she suggested that we lock up too many defendants before their trials, and that with better screening and electronic supervision, California can reduce its jail population and save money. Worth a look.

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