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California’s growing budget crisis and prison lawsuits are focusing more attention on a serious policy question: Are there better ways to reduce crime and treat criminals than by spending $36,000 in taxpayer dollars every year to lock up each low-level property and drug possession offender in state prison?

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports show the state now imprisons 30,000 offenders sentenced for non-invasion property crimes or simple drug possession, at a cost of over $1 billion per year. These nonviolent offenders are among the prime candidates for early release, especially if federal judges order California to reduce crowding and improve health care for prisoners. But even if their offenses did not threaten public safety, they’re not harmless; if released without treatment or supervision, two-thirds will be rearrested within three years, CDCR figures show.

However, the fact is that nearly all of these offenders are scheduled for release anyway. The average property offender serves 14 months and the average drug possessor less than 12 months in prison. Turning them loose a few months early to relieve prison crowding and save scarce budget bucks might even slightly reduce their odds of reoffending, since most research shows lengthy prison terms actually increase the chances of recidivism.

With early release, then, counties will be welcoming the same parolees back home, only a bit earlier than if they served their full sentences. Since local treatment and community supervision programs are much cheaper than prison and offer rehabilitative benefits to break the cycle of recidivism, the state is presented with a way to make lemonade from its budget-crisis and prison-lawsuit lemons: return a fraction of savings from early prisoner releases to fund county treatment and supervision under guidelines such as those of Proposition 36. Since we can’t just shoot miscreants or lock them up forever for stealing a car or carrying a dime bag, sooner or later California’s counties will have to deal with the parolees anyway, and it might as well be sooner.