The Prison Boom May Be Over, But the Worst May Be Yet to Come
Thirty years into California’s experiment with mass incarceration, the results look pretty bad indeed: overcrowded prisons, federal receivership, a broken system of parole supervision, thousands of ex-offenders who find it hard to get jobs and reintegrate into their communities. Meanwhile, as the state hemorrhages millions and millions of dollars into its prisons, California’s once-admired state university system is cutting programs, furloughing professors, and refusing admission to thousands of qualified students simply because it can’t afford to take them.
Here’s a scary thought, though: As I was reading this post at the Governing through Crime blog from Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon, it struck me that we may not yet have seen the worst of the long-term effects of the Golden State’s prison boom. Today California is still benefiting from the leadership (such as it is) of a generation of educators, politicians, government officials, doctors, lawyers, and business owners raised in a California whose schools and universities were the envy of the nation, a California which certainly had its share of social problems, but whose state and local governments were not synonymous with dysfunction and fiscal crisis.
The next generation of leaders, born in the 1980s and ’90s, will have grown up in a very different California. In five, 10, 15, 20 years, we will see the ramifications of a California whose schools and universities are underfunded, whose tax base has been gutted by Prop 13, and whose default response to social problems is imprisonment. One thing is clear: prison reform needs to be a piece of a much larger puzzle in California, or the next few decades could be pretty bleak. As Simon notes:
Our “prison first” policy of recent decades has concentrated California’s social problems in an environment where it is most expensive and least effective to solve them. The ways of unwinding this catastrophe are broad indeed and should involve the best minds in the public and private sector. But they cannot be solved by ignoring the deficit in social control capacity in California communities that have suffered from decades of private disinvestment and public neglect.