California Prison Boom Ends, Signaling a Shift in Priorities ; with Dwindling Resources and a Drop in Crime, State Turns More to Rehabilitation Than Bricks and Barbed Wire

Article excerpt

For the first time in decades, California has neither any prisons under construction nor plans to build more.

With the recent opening of the Kern Valley State Prison, a maximum-security facility about 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles in Delano, the state has capped a 20-year building frenzy. Since 1984, the state built 33 prisons; California had constructed only 12 in the previous 132 years.

Hailed as an "end of an era" by many, the decision to build no more prisons is driven largely by dwindling financial resources. Across the nation, state expenditures for prisons over the past 15 years have grown by more than 1,000 percent. At this rate, California - like many states - can no longer afford to build new facilities.

Yet beyond simple economics, it is also symbolic of a departure from the tough-on-crime mind-set that has dominated the politics of prisons over the past 30 years. From Massachusetts to Michigan, states are placing greater emphasis on rehabilitation - establishing reentry programs to help prisoners transition back to society, shortening sentences, and diverting abuse offenders to treatment instead of jail.

"I applaud California for saying this is the last prison they plan to build," says Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, who established a statewide model reentry program in 2002. Two Ohio prisons have closed in the past four years. "If you build a prison, you are going to find people to put in it," he says.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) seems to agree, calling for a conceptual shift in one of the nation's largest prison systems. On July 1, the state's corrections department will be renamed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

And the Kern State Valley Prison, which opened last week to its first dozen prisoners and will eventually house 5,000 men, is being touted as the first maximum- security facility in the state with full-scale rehabilitative programming that could include up to eight hours a day of jobs training or abuse treatment.

The focus on rehabilitation, says department spokeswoman Margot Bach, is intended to cut down on recidivism. With 600,000 inmates leaving prisons across the country each year - and with some two- thirds of inmates rearrested within three years of their release - officials of all political persuasions are shifting their focus toward rehabilitation.

"In the past, it has been you are either for the victim or for the offender. …


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