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PD Editorial: Long-term thinking for state prisons

  • Attorney General Eric Holder speaking to the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco. (ERIC RISBERG / Associated Press)

In his speech Monday about prison crowding, Attorney General Eric Holder candidly acknowledged what California officials have not.

“We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation,” he said.

Holder wasn't specifically addressing California in his remarks at the American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco. Still, his proposals to cut costs and alleviate overcrowding without abandoning public safety are especially timely for California, which is under a federal court order to shrink its prison population by 10,000 inmates by the end of the year.

To ease crowding in federal penitentiaries and free resources for investigations, prosecutions and intervention programs, the attorney general said he is directing federal prosecutors to avoid charging nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry lengthy, mandatory minimum sentences.

Next, he called on Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing defendants. He also requested more resources for drug treatment, an approach that's been shown to reduce recidivism.

Finally, Holder announced an expansion of compassionate release for aging inmates who didn't commit violent crimes, have served significant time in prison and aren't a threat to the public.

“We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate — not merely to convict, warehouse and forget,” he said.

The problems in federal prisons as outlined by Holder parallel those in California prisons, and the attorney general's recommendations could — and should — have been offered long ago by Gov. Jerry Brown and other responsible state officials.

Instead, they are dragging their feet.

On Friday, a week after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, the governor again asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Does he really think the justices will change their minds?

Despite claims to the contrary, complying with the four-year-old order to get the prisons down to about 137 percent of their design capacity isn't going to mean opening the gates and sending 10,000 violent felons into the streets.

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