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Feds need to fix the current crisis

Our View: Crime

Posted: February 14, 2009 11:10 p.m.
Updated: February 15, 2009 4:55 a.m.
As the state prepares to tax us into the poorhouse and the feds grow the size of government instead of the economy, it is little wonder most people are overlooking the biggest crisis to hit California in a generation.

It's not a crisis of money, although that plays a role. It is the looming crisis in public safety.

Why do you suppose California's crime rate steadily dropped over the past two decades - from 6.7 major crimes per 1,000 population in 1988 to 3.6 per 1,000 in 2007?

It's because most of the hardened criminals are safely locked away.

That is about to change, if the federal courts have their way - and it looks like they will.

On Monday, three federal judges said they intend to force the state to set free one-third of all serious and repeat offenders.

No, not because the judges think the prisoners have learned their lesson, but because their constitutional rights are being violated. There are just too few prisons to hold them and too few prison doctors and psychiatrists to give them the medical and mental health care they need, the judges said.

"Overcrowding is the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions that have been found to exist in the California prisons," they said in a tentative ruling. "There is no relief other than a prisoner release order that will remedy the unconstitutional prison conditions."

California's prison system is running at about 200 percent of capacity. Our 33 state prisons were built for 84,000 inmates and currently hold 158,000.

The judges haven't settled on a number - that will come in their final order - but they said the state must "develop a plan to reduce the prison population to 120 percent or 145 percent of the prison's design capacity, or somewhere in between, within a period of two or three years."

They said the state has "a number of options" for achieving the reduction. Basically, these federal magistrates are forcing California to reform its prison system and throw out all of the laws that have lowered our crime rate these past two decades - from George Deukmejian's "Use a gun, go to prison" to Bill Jones' "Three strikes" to George and Sharon Runner's "Jessica's Law."

The bottom line is early release for 36,000 to 56,000 hardcore criminals.

Make no mistake: These aren't pizza thieves. These are rapists, killers, child molesters and drug dealers. First-time and small-time offenders don't usually go to prison - they go to county jail if they're incarcerated at all.

The ruling affects only state prisons, which house the worst of the worst.

The decision would spell sheer disaster for our communities, and the reaction cuts across party lines. Both Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown have vowed to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It will be an uphill battle. Both men know our prisons are in crisis. Schwarzenegger himself declared a "state of emergency" for our prison system in 2006 because of overcrowding.

There is really only one way out of this mess. If the federal courts can do this to California, then the federal government needs to provide the solution.

Buck McKeon and every other member of California's congressional delegation, Republican and Democrat alike, must heed this wake-up call and shout about it from the highest hilltop. They need to set everything else aside and make it their No. 1 priority.

Nothing is more important than public safety.

Wilderness is great and education is important, but not if you're attacked in the woods or molested on your way to school.

If Congress can build a giant prison in Cuba and operate it for half a decade, it can damned well fund some state prisons in the nation's most populous state and staff them with doctors and psychiatrists, if that's what they think our poor, suffering convicts need.


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