California's prisons are exploding with inmates, so much so that the Governor has suggested shipping some of them to out of state facilities. Why are there so many prisoners in California? PT asks CA Senator Gil Cedillo.
PT: Most of our public policies are underwritten by generally agreed upon principles. Our criminal justice system is no different, but it seems that some of the underlying principles—prevention and rehabilitation—have been neglected in favor of incarceration. Why does this appear to be the case?
Cedillo: We could sit down and talk about that for a few hours. Here's what we have though: we've made major policy choices over the years that have moved us away from investing in the positive side of humanity—education, environment, infrastructure, etc. In so doing, we have moved aggressively toward the criminalization of our society, thinking that locking people up will be a cure for our failure to invest in our people. It has been a disastrous policy.
We criminalize all types of activity and we have disparate consequences through that system
of criminalization, resulting in a wildly dis-proportionate number of African American and Latino prisoners. We've built a criminal justice system built primarily around incarceration, which was never the goal. And it has developed to the point at which we have very few structures, programs and policies built around redemption and rehabilitation.
PT: How did this mindset come to dominate the discussion? Was an incarceration-centered system just viewed as the path of least resistance by policy-makers?
Cedillo: I think it was a failure of leadership. Our criminal justice system became part of a political game between right and left, and the focus on incarceration as a means of being "tough on crime" was a poor response to the reasonable concerns of people in our communities. The system has grown particularly warped in the way it criminalizes people for their illnesses. With drug or alcohol abuse or mental illness, we send people out without the services they need to get better. Then when these people go into society and do something wrong, we arrest them again.
PT: You raise an interesting point about public sentiment when it comes to an emotional issue like criminal behavior. How does public sentiment affect legislators who are charged with crafting policy?
Cedillo: So much interplay takes place in our society using this rhetoric of "war." There's a war on basically everything we find unpleasant or unacceptable. It creates a type of phobia of actually dealing with the root issues thoughtfully.
That's not to say that we should be "soft" on crime, it's that we need to be "smart" about it. We need to know what we're talking about.
Unfortunately, we create and engender hysteria: hysteria about undocumented immigrants, young African American men, drug use—you name it. And then of course, if you watch the news or listen to shock-jock radio, the hysteria is perpetuated. It lodges in the popular mindset.
PT: Failed policy or not, there are a lot of people in California's prisons at the moment and a good number of them will need to be reintegrated into society eventually. Are California legislators discussing any policies to reduce recidivism and make reintegration more feasible?
Cedillo: It's not surprising that people who get out of prison aren't successful when we don't invest in any programs to help them succeed. Forget the stigma of being an ex-felon; if we don't train people, create the bridges to society and work ardently to foster reintegration, why would we expect them not to come back?
PT: Where else is the system breaking down, in your opinion?
Cedillo: Well, I look a lot at the young people in foster care, in our juvenile justice system and on the streets. We simply do not have strategies for them. We're not educating them, we're not socializing them, we're not giving them life skills. We're setting them up for failure.
PT: What about the cost/benefit breakdown of rehabilitation and education vs. incarceration? Is this ratio just disregarded in policy debates in the capitol, or does it ever come up?
Cedillo: It's fascinating to me how those breakdowns aren't fully appreciated, even though many members use them as a benchmark in other policy areas. In this area, it's clearly more effective and more efficient to invest in the front end-starting from prenatal care through Head Start, education, sports and cultural opportunities-than it is to eventually incarcerate those people.
The foster program that we have pushes kids out the door at 18, without adequate life skills, education, training and support, and we wonder why they're out on the street after six months. That's just poor policy. If we offered our vulnerable populations life skills and job training, or if we did more to ensure that they would have affordable housing and health care, we could cut crime dramatically. A good job and a good family are the greatest crime prevention policy anyone's ever come up with. If we do everything we can to help that along, we'll have a massive reduction in crime.
PT: So, what are the most pressing criminal justice issues in California at the moment?
Cedillo: Right now we're looking at federal intervention on our prisons, and that has a big impact on our budget. But more important, we need to figure out who needs what. Who do we need to separate from society? Who should be in school? Who should be in treatment? Who should be in counseling? Who needs to be at work? Being smart on crime in this way will result in an enormous reduction in the amount we're paying to incarcerate people.
PT: Senator, thank you for your time.
Gil Cedillo represents California's 22nd senate district. He is a member of the Senate's Public Safety, Rules, Revenue and Taxation, and Transportation and Housing committees.