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|Addicted to Incarceration but Can't Afford the Habit|
|Monday, 12 March 2012 12:03|
The Unites States of America has been addicted to incarceration for quite some time. It is a costly addiction both in terms of its impact on people, families and the community; not to mention the financial costs which run into the billions. The damages inflicted on communities by the costliness of this addiction to prisons deprives necessary resources to other services: like education and healthcare. An addict’s behavior patterns allow him to continue using at all costs until literally there is nothing left. The State of California has reached that point. The most significant budget crisis in the State’s history has the addict looking in the mirror and doing some serious soul searching. Instead of continuing to hock off education infrastructure and other important functions to subsidize the addiction, Governor Jerry Brown is taking steps to close the Department of Juvenile Justice’s (DJJ) youth prisons and end at least one serious component of the addiction.
The budget crisis in California led Governor Jerry Brown to propose massive cuts to the California’s DJJ, effectively closing the State’s juvenile prisons. By any measure this is considered radical reform. Previously there had not been an appetite for such broad and sweeping change; even though these facilities historically have had horrendous recidivism rates hovering above 80 percent. For decades states like California have blindly invested enormous amounts of tax dollars—$226 million last year to be specific— to maintain and expand these failed youth prisons. Even doing so in the face of criticism from community leaders, advocates, policy shapers and former inmates who all decry it a massive failure. Even federal lawsuits were not enough to force the elected leaders to take the necessary steps to address this epic failure, so it is important to acknowledge the role of the financial crisis and the pressure it has put on states to address this destructive and costly addiction to incarceration.
The tightening of budgets is obviously a strong motivator for government agencies but it alone unfortunately does not lead to inventive reform efforts. The fact that Gov. Brown decided to close such a significant and dilapidated arm of the justice system should open the door to reform efforts that are more far reaching than we have seen heretofore. The entire justice system is in dire need of overhaul. Instead of reforming it piece by piece, we should seize the opportunity presented to take a step back, zoom out and aim at the big picture.
We need a new system for addressing our social issues, a system that is smart on crime. We need a system that actively seeks community participation and is rooted in restorative justice practices. These are not lofty solutions lacking practicality. On the contrary six counties in California have already taken steps to cut back on their addiction to incarceration. According to a policy brief on realignment from the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice Marin, Ventura, Placer, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco have all implemented innovative practices specific to their localities for rehabilitating serious offenders and are already seeing reductions in recidivism.
Millions of dollars are spent on a model of social control that is a proven utter failure. While youth, families and the people who work in the system share this sentiment the flow of money continues. Why then do we continue to tinker with policy and practice change when intelligence should point us in an entirely different direction? Those of us who have been pushing for reforms and system change should seize the moment aiming for the biggest ideas and most visionary changes we can imagine. We should be bold, brave and relentless. Now, as budgets continue to dry up and the political will for this antiquated justice system decays, we stand at the gates of opportunity to create a truly community-driven, restorative justice system.