Editorial: State should build re-entry prisons such as Paso’s

Here’s a nugget of good news: California’s prison population is shrinking.

As of August, there were 166,569 prisoners in the state system, down from an all-time high of 173,479 in August 2006.

Still, overcrowding remains a huge problem — California Men’s Colony, for example, is at 170 percent capacity — yet efforts to reduce the inmate population have met with limited success.

Case in point: During recent budget negotiations, the Legislature blocked a proposal to allow some low-risk inmates to serve the last 12 months of their sentences under house arrest — a reasonable measure, in our view.

If we thought it would do any good, we would urge the current Legislature to reconsider its denial, but given lawmakers’ fear of being labeled soft on crime, we won’t waste our ink.

Instead, we urge officials to focus on expediting longstanding plans to add re-entry centers, medical units and other smaller-scale prison facilities, including some here in San Luis Obispo County.

Yes, it’s expensive, but we can’t afford to wait.

From a local perspective, these projects will generate some much-needed head-of-household jobs that will greatly aid the economic recovery of our communities.

There also is a statewide public safety issue. Overcrowding is creating tensions that have already been blamed for one riot at Chino state prison that injured approximately 200 inmates.

Another factor: A panel of federal judges has ordered the state to cut the prison population, and while the state is fighting that, there’s no certainty it will prevail.

Under the circumstances, the state must stay on track with the $7.8 billion prison and jail-building program approved in 2006.

According to the Department of Corrections, these projects are back on schedule after being sidelined by state budget concerns and other issues. But we don’t want to see them slip back into limbo — and that’s going to take some vigilance on the part of our state legislators and other political leaders.

We need the beds, the medical facilities and especially the re-entry centers that are aimed to help inmates make a successful transition back into their communities.

Under the current system, far too many paroled prisoners are landing back behind bars; according to recent statistics, approximately 60 percent of California inmates are returned to prison within three years of release.

That comes at a huge expense; the state has been spending close to $49,000 per year, per inmate.

Clearly, it’s in the economic interests of California taxpayers when inmates succeed. If re-entry facilities can help them, they will be worth the investment.

We’d like to see the centers come on line as soon as possible, though under the state’s timetable, it will take five to six years to add 8,000 re-entry beds. Given government’s often glacial pace of business, even that may be optimistic.

We hope that’s not the case, because we simply can’t afford the tab for failure.

It’s often noted that California spends more on its prison system than it does on higher education. That’s criminal, and we must begin to turn that around.

We strongly urge state and local officials to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure timely completion of the Paso Robles re-entry center and other prison facilities planned for our county.

Other Prisons

Additional prison facilities planned for San Luis Obispo County

At the site of the former boys school in Paso Robles:

A 900-bed, medium-security facility for inmates 50 and older, including some with physical disabilities and other health needs

Status: Preparation of environmental impact report is under way; beds should be on line in 2011-2012

100-inmate fire camp

Status: No estimated completion date given.

Re-entry facility for up to 500 inmates who are within 6-12 months of release

Status: No completion date given, though San Luis Obispo County facility is slated to be one of the first in the state

At California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo:

A 50-bed mental health crisis facility

Status: Anticipated completion October, 2012.