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Last month, CJCJ released a detailed study documenting the feasibility, benefits, and cost savings of closing California’s juvenile prison system and transferring its dwindling roster of inmates to county detention facilities. The main obstacle now is to convince counties and traditionalists that the state will provide sufficient funding, which would be a fraction of the annual $250,000 per ward, $400 million total cost of state lockup. 

Juveniles are the easy part of deincarceration reform, mainly because the kids have made it easy. Their crime rates, especially for murder and serious felonies, have been plummeting for 30 years, a trend evidently so horrifying that many interests still refuse to acknowledge it. The state now finds only around 1,600 youths to cage in its lawsuit-riddled juvenile cellblocks, down from nearly 10,000 in the mid 1990s.

The hard part is devising a plan for the iron granddaddy, California’s bloated, 170,000-inmate, $6 billion adult prison system. Budget woes have forced Governor Schwarzenegger to propose releasing tens of thousands of prisoners early, providing an ideal opportunity for reform ideas – but also a trap. The problem we have to face is that grownups are not cooperating. I’ve been arguing to deaf ears for 15 years that the middle-aged crime wave is a serious crisis. The explosion in California’s over-40 felony arrests (24,000 in 1980, 123,000 in 2007) driven by epidemic drug abuse is fueling mammoth prisoner numbers (2,700 over-40 inmates in 1980, 67,400 in 2008).

On rare occasions when prison reformers even mention this problem (hardliners have no plan beyond locking even more up), they’ve have misrepresented it and proposed solutions based on obsolete demographic notions of crime. In fact, the get-tough sentencing laws like Three Strikes that we’d like to blame account for only a fraction of the aging of the prison population, and except for the few regrettable pizza-slice cases, strikers tend to be more serious offenders unlikely to be considered for release. The real boom lies in new middle-aged felon admissions (1,300 over-40 new commitments in 1980, 20,000 in 2008) and recidivism (34,000 over-40 parolees returned to prison in 2008, compared to a few hundred in 1980).

Thus, unlike juvenile crime and detention, adult felon numbers have been rising rapidly, and local jails are even more overcrowded than state prisons. After a quadrupling in jail inmates since 1975, particularly those held on felony charges, the Corrections Standards Authority finds around 83,000 ADP (and peak populations of 89,000) in jails built to hold around 76,000; 17,000 jail inmates are released every month for lack of space. So there’s little local cell space to take state prisoners.

There’s no easy solution to California’s adult prison crisis, and some reformers aren’t making things easier by dispensing simplistic homilies such as recent recommendations to, basically, let every older inmate out. In fact, California lets about 20,000 over-40 offenders out of prison every year, and most are right back in within a few months. 

Let me be blunt: treating middle-aged crime like a joke is not reform. We’ve gotten ourselves into a terrible mess by ignoring a quarter century of aging drug addiction based on antiquated myths that everyone knows crime is a young person’s game” and people over 30 have matured out of crime-prone years.” California used mass imprisonment to handle addicts and made the problem immeasurably worse. Now, we have hundreds of thousands of aging addicts with criminal records who are cut off from society and require intensive community based supervision and rehabilitation to return. Community jails and programs simply don’t have the capacity to handle them at present. Nor will counties and communities be able to handle them without massive, tax-funded investment in state-of-the-art treatment and outpatient programs. 

While such community-based drug treatment and rehab innovations offer the only way out of this crisis, they require substantial new funding during a time of budget shortfall. They require long-term thinking when getting to the next fiscal quarter without wearing a barrel is all Sacramento and local governments can contemplate. California’s unofficial crime control plan seems to be to pray for overdoses; a record 4,100 Californians died from drug abuse in 2006 and thus are no longer getting arrested.

The alternative budget proposed by progressive groups emphasizing reducing prison populations by returning drug and property offenders to local supervision is fine. But we also have to recognize the monumental burden localizing prisoners is going to place on law enforcement and programs that require a serious infusion of resources and time to manage what – after 30 years of lock-‘em-up and ignore-‘em policy – has become an intractable aging drug and crime epidemic.