The inside of a county jail or state prison is not something most people see. Nor do most people know anyone who has served time for committing crime, other than perhaps for drunken driving. Unlike most people, I’ve had the opportunity to experience both.
My godson is locked up, awaiting trial on charges of threatening other family members. Unfortunately, he’s a regular there. Several of my friends have been incarcerated as well. Moreover, I’ve been in and out of the Washington, D.C., jail many times — not as an inmate but as a member of an oversight commission. Democratic Mayor Anthony Williams appointed me to the Corrections Information Council, a commission charged with representing citizen and offender interests by inspecting the jail, halfway houses and prisons holding D.C. inmates.
I’ve learned two important lessons through these experiences. First, other than the worst of the worst, every offender comes home. Second, a corrections department is just like any other government agency. They’re no more efficient than the DMV, and no better at outcomes than struggling public schools.
Inmates leave our jails and prisons daily. They need somewhere to go, somewhere to live and somewhere to make a living. Eventually, most end up back in the neighborhoods from where they came. Many have family and friends there. Others, particularly those in for a long time, may not have either but the old haunts are all they know.
These women and men are now on their own. They have to make daily decisions about their lives. For someone locked up a long time, this is difficult after years of having every decision made for them. Moreover, with a thin or non-existent resume, the stigma of prison time and a long gap in employment, finding an employer willing to take a chance on them is difficult, especially in slow economic times.
Without resources, without a support network and without a job, it’s easy for ex-offenders to fall back on the one thing they know well — crime. That crime creates more victims, causes more families hurt and pain and results in another incarceration on the endless carousel of crime and punishment.
The outcomes of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation speak for themselves. Almost two-thirds of prisoners who have done their time end up back in prison three years after their release. According to the CDCR’s own figures, nearly a third of ex-offenders end up back in jail in only six months. Every one of these recidivist crimes means one or more new victims.
Something is clearly broken in our corrections system. Too little attention is paid to how what happens (or doesn’t happen) in prison impacts what happens in our cities, towns and neighborhoods.
Conservative policy wonks and elected officials have begun to address this issue, both here in California and across the nation. Led by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Prison Fellowship and the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Right on Crime coalition has emerged that disrupts the link between politicians, unionized prison guards, the prison construction industry and associated campaign contributions.
Signatories to the Right on Crime Statement of Principles include such conservative Californians and former Californians as Ed Meese, Ward Connerly, Michael Reagan, Pat Nolan and Chuck DeVore.
The principles they endorse aim at reducing recidivism, restoring victims and their families, lowering crime rates, reducing spiraling costs and freeing up space for dangerous offenders and career criminals.
Texas has eagerly adopted many of the reforms suggested by these conservative principles. There, conservative Republicans joined with Democrats to reform the corrections system, including providing incentive funding to improve probation outcomes, expanding drug courts (focusing on treatment rather than time) and using community corrections for mentally ill and petty criminals.
These reforms have saved Texas taxpayers almost $2 billion over five years. Moreover, instead of a forecast increase in crime and subsequent prison building, Texas has already closed one prison due to a lack of prisoners and is on track to close two more.
I’ve had the chance to see a corrections system up close and personal. I’ve seen how can fail victims and their families, as well as failing neighborhoods, cities and towns. Real change and real reform will come when we acknowledge that the system is broken and that if our governments continue their current practices, we will reap will more spending, more victims and more crime.
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.