Solution to Prison Overcrowding Right under Our Noses

With California’s jails and prisons overflowing with nonviolent first-time offenders, drug offenders, and mentally ill offenders, we are indeed at a crisis. While the prisons are helping to bankrupt our state, legislators and advocates are working tirelessly to find solutions. People are against releasing prisoners for a variety of reasons, including public safety and wanting prisoners to be held accountable for their actions.

But what if there was a solution that allowed offenders to be held accountable, addressed public safety, and kept nonviolent offenders out of prison? And what if this solution actually saved the state—you and me and every taxpayer you know—money?

Fortunately, we do have a solution available to us right now: Collaborative courts, particularly drug courts, mental health courts, and reentry courts. Unfortunately, collaborative courts are not being utilized in many counties and legislators are making knee-jerk funding cuts to them.

Collaborative courts address the underlying issue of why people commit crimes rather than simply sentence those people to prison and hope for the best when they are released. Without addressing the reasons people commit crimes to begin with, research shows that there is little chance of rehabilitation and high chances of recidivism. Collaborative courts use a team approach to combine judicial supervision with social and treatment services so that offenders can become productive citizens. The team typically consists of the judge, the attorneys, the probation department, and law enforcement, and sometimes includes service providers. For example, in a drug court, an offender who has committed a nonviolent drug offense would, in lieu of prison, commit to a 12- to 18-month program during which he regularly attends a drug treatment program, submits to drug testing, and appears before a judge for review. A mental health court operates in the same way, replacing drug treatment with intensive mental health treatment and appropriate medication.

Although these courts sometimes cost more to run on the front end, all signs point to their ability to decrease court and prison costs over time. Several comprehensive evaluations have found that collaborative courts, particularly drug courts, reduce criminal behavior and recidivism, including from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, the National Drug Court Institute Review, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Other positive consequences of drug courts specifically include a significant decrease in the number of babies born already addicted to drugs. The decrease in repeat criminal behavior, the accountability the offenders must make to be in the programs, the positive contributions to the community that collaborative court program graduates make, and substantial cost savings to the courts and prison system all point to a solution to several problems that we continue to ignore. With this solution is indeed right under our noses, why would our legislators cut funding to it?

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