California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has developed a rational proposal that will end the stalemate between the federal government and the State of California over meeting the federal mandate to reduce our overcrowded prisons.

The Federal Court has determined that overcrowding is leading to inadequate care of inmates, and thus violating their basic rights. The governor has put forward a proposal to shift even more state inmates to leased space in county jails and private facilities and delay the closing of Norco Prison in Riverside County in response to the federal government’s demands to reduce our prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. The governor’s proposal clearly does not address the root cause of the issue.

California’s overcrowded prison population is primarily a result of high recidivism rates (more than 65 percent of inmates return to prison over a three year period according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), inappropriate mandatory sentencing on low-level offenses, and the practice of sending large numbers of people to prison in certain counties. Since the Governor’s proposal does not address the high rate that people enter the prison system, implementation of his proposed initiative will eventually lead us to another prison overcrowding situation in the near future, thus returning us to the same situation we face today.

The heart of the proposal by Senator Steinberg provides performance-based grants to county drug and alcohol programs; and mental health programs that can document their success in keeping formally incarcerated people from returning to prison. The proposal also extends the deadline for reducing the prison population by three years and creates a panel to analyze and improve our sentencing laws.

Implementing the governor’s proposal would mean that taxpayers would continue to spend more than $50,000 per inmate to incarcerate someone in state prison, while doing nothing to disrupt the pipeline back to prison. The governor’s proposal would perpetuate a process that negatively impacts families, unravels the fabric of our communities, weakens the financial health of our state and continues to redirect the problem onto the backs of local government.

It is hard to argue that our current polices of sentencing and incarceration are successfully keeping our communities safer and rehabilitating those who are most in need. The key to helping our men and women who are returning to our neighborhoods become positive contributors to our communities is addressing the issues that led them to engage in criminal activity. Substance abuse and mental health issues are clearly high on the list.

Like many difficult situations, the solution to prison overcrowding requires innovation, creativity blended with the utilization of proven methods, not deferring the situation. By implementing Senator Steinberg’s proposal, many of those whose paths have led them astray will have the opportunity to receive the care and support they need to be thriving community members.

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson.

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson represents the Fifth District, which includes Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Piedmont, and parts of Oakland. For information visit

One Response

  1. Jonatton Yeah?

    The sad reality is that correctional facilities have become defacto mental health clinics. As someone who works in public health, it’s even sadder to say that I’m often happy when one of our patients is arrested and subsequently incarcerated – at least then they will receive their HIV ARV and other necessary biomedical interventions. When they’re out in the “free” world, it’s that much harder and often borders on impossible.

    The usually leftist line of reasoning is that this is all Reagan’s fault. While he was certainly a monster when it comes to health policy, the left considered forced hospitalization to be a net negative. Well, we still have forced hospitalzation. The only difference now is that we have to wait for someone to break the law before taking that step. 72 hour/5150 holds are little more than a band-aid over a compound fracture but that’s the best we have.

    Personally, I think a good first step is to consider mental illness and substance use to be one in the same. That’s common practice in the UK and I believe working with the totality of people’s behavior rather than symptoms and results of people’s behavior would go a long way.


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