Little Hoover, Big Problem

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The Little Hoover Commission* (the bipartisan, independent state commission dedicated to "promoting economy, efficiency and improved service in the transaction of public business") has issued a new report on the state prison system, one that neatly dovetails with recent Blotter posts on sentencing and politics. And for such a nice bunch of technocrats, the Lil' Hooverites are using awfully tough language.

Says the Times:

In a blistering 84-page report, the nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission linked the problems plaguing the correctional system to political cowardice among governors and lawmakers fearful of being labeled soft on crime.

If policymakers are unwilling to make bold changes, the commission said, they should appoint an independent entity — modeled after the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission — with the power to do it for them.

"For decades, governors and lawmakers fearful of appearing soft on crime have failed to muster the political will to address the looming crisis," the commission said.

"And now their time has run out."

Of course, there's a reason politicians like to engage in the more-brutal-than-thou posturing on penal issue-- it works.

"We're always ever so nice to furry animals and very, very mean to criminals," said Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at UC Riverside. "It's almost reflexive, the voters' desire to be tough. If the prisons are a cross between a sewer and the Roman Colosseum, their answer seems to be, 'Good.' "

But some criminologists say the public has been misled about just what sort of policies make the streets safer. At UC Irvine, Joan Petersilia said the "cookie-cutter" approach has put a lot of people in prison but failed to deliver much in the way of public safety.

"I don't think the public really understands that all this money we're spending isn't yielding much in return," Petersilia said. California, she noted, may spend more than $8 billion a year on corrections — a 52% increase over the last five years — but roughly 70% of inmates released by the state wind up back behind bars.

And the money being thrown into the prison system isn't just producing little in the way of results, it's also causing "collateral damage". With an ever increasing prison population, comes a greater need for health workers in prisons (sorry, brutality fans-- there are certain federally mandated standards that must be maintained, so the prisoners get medical attention). The results show up in another Times story:

Court orders mandating drastic pay increases for health personnel in California prisons have led to an exodus of workers from state mental hospitals and left the facilities struggling to provide adequate patient care.

Staff shortages at Atascadero State Hospital, where psychiatrist vacancies stand at 70%, have caused the facility to all but freeze new admissions.

All the state's mental hospitals, which like the prisons are also under federal scrutiny, report staff departures for prison jobs that now pay about 40% more. And they fear that many more staffers will leave.

I'm not sure where the patients in state mental hospitals fall on the voters' furry animals-to-prisoners spectrum of concern, but unfortunately I doubt they are close enough to furry and cute to make many rethink their devotion to the Roman-ish aspects of the state corrections system.

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*The name is a reference to the Hoover Commission, an advisory board headed by ex-President Herbert Hoover, that was created by President Truman in 1947 to examine the structure and workings of the executive branch of the federal government. Since that commission last met in 1955, the name was already a little dusty by the time the diminutive version was attached to the state commission in 1962.

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