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July 23, 2006 - Contra Costa Times (CA)

OpEd: The Real Reason Behind Overcrowding In Prisons

By Anthony Gregory (Gregory is a writer and musician living in Berkeley. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute, and a policy adviser for The Future of Freedom Foundation.)

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

IN RESPONSE to a crisis of massive prison overcrowding, Gov. Schwarzenegger has called for the construction of two more prisons.

Since 1980, the State of California has built more than 20 prisons, and its prison population has increased about fivefold.

With about 170,000 inmates, it has a higher per-capita incarceration rate than the rest of the United States, which itself has the highest per-capita prison population in the industrialized world.

This is all good news for law enforcement unions and politicians. From the public's point of view, however, it is not so positive.

In a typical example of the failure of big government, we see that no matter how many prisons are built, no matter how much money the politicians throw at the problem, there is overcrowding.

Conditions for prisoners deteriorate. Rape and brutality have become the norm.

The most obvious reform is almost never mentioned: Stop locking up so many people and start letting a lot of people out.

Surely America isn't the most criminal culture on earth. Why does the United States have the most prisoners? The main reason is too many laws.

More prisoners are locked away for drug violations than all violent crimes combined. It used to be perfectly legal for anyone to walk into a store and buy heroin or cocaine. Then the progressives took over in the early 20th century and began waging a war on drugs, which blossomed under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, when marijuana became nationally illegal.

People have a right to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It is an affront to the founding principles of America to lock peaceful people into cages just because they consume or sell drugs.

It is also ineffective in reducing drug abuse. And it leads to more violent crime, gang warfare, judicial and police corruption, and all the other problems that accompanied alcohol prohibition.

Those who have committed no crime against person or property should be released from the jails and prisons. These include drug offenders, sex workers, those in possession of illegal guns, and anyone else who has hurt and threatened no one, whose only offense was to violate a victimless crime statute.

At a cost of about $35,000 per inmate per year, not only is keeping them in prison enormously expensive, draining resources that could be used to pursue actual violent criminals, but it is downright immoral.

As for minor property criminals, justice should be about making the victim whole, not about expensively caging people just to provide jobs for the prison guards, money for the bureaucracy, and talking points for tough-on-crime politicians.

Instead of being forced to pay taxes that go to jailing their offenders, victims should at least have the option of being reimbursed for what was stolen from them and compensated for their trouble.

Moving toward a restitution model would free up valuable space. So would stopping the overzealous enforcement of Three Strikes against people whose third strike was a minor, nonviolent offense.

Critics have accused Schwarzenegger of being too close to the prison guard lobby. Of course, Gray Davis wasn't exactly the lobby's enemy. Both Republicans and Democrats love the prison industrial complex.

It was Davis, in fact, who angered much of the left when he invited the corporations in to benefit from low-cost labor.

Whereas in a free market, businesses have to pay their employees an adequate wage or the employees can quit and go elsewhere, the corporate state provides a literally captive labor market for industry, socializing the costs to the taxpayers.

As with so much else that government does, it is horrible for the economy on balance, but some people get fabulously wealthy from it. Here we see a lot of the incentive for more prisons.

America and especially California have a sickness right now, an addiction to prisons that distinguishes them as the great incarcerators of the world.

This will not do in a free country. It is corrupting our culture and bankrupting our economy, all to benefit the corporate state that profits in proportion to how many of us are in cages.

Right now, California is taking the lead in prison abuse. Instead, it should take the lead toward sensibility and freedom, and start releasing those prisoners who have violated the rights of no one.

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