Nowhere is that more evident than in California. Federal oversight is being called in to fix California's decades-long problem with prison overcrowding. Here they've found that identifying the cause is much easier than identifying the solution(s) or finding the courage to implement measures that the experts agree upon.
Experts unanimously agree that prisoners serving long sentences can and do change while in prison. Although these prisoners are least popular because of the often-violent crimes they committed to earn their long sentences, often they are less likely to reoffend than the petty criminal or the addict who has been dancing in and out of the revolving jail door. Short-termers such as petty thieves and addicts have the highest recidivism rate. This raises an interesting question: How will the governor's Secretary of Corrections choose who to let out, when they have to release over 9,000 inmates by December 31 of 2013 in order to bring California's prison population down to 137.5% of design capacity?
I am of the opinion that if they release a high percentage of short-termers to meet the court-imposed prison-population cap, they will soon be faced with the same problem again. The durable solution is to support affordable rehabilitation programs that work, give more good-time credits to inmates who participate in rehabilitation and education programs, and when the occasional need to do early releases comes up, release a higher percentage of inmates who have years of rehabilitative program participation under their belts.
As simple as it sounds, that will solve California's prison problems, and allow the state to focus on the next multi-billion dollar problem looming on the horizon: the bursting county jails.
Two years ago California legislators tried ineffectively to fix the bursting prison system by ordering all inmates with sentences of less than 10 years to serve out their sentences in county jails-- a task which none of the county jails were prepared for, as not one of the county jails were designed for long-term care. Before the state's "Realignment Plan" threw that curve ball at them, county jails were reserved for inmates who were awaiting trial, in trial, or sentenced to less than one year of incarceration. As jails were not designed for long-term care, they have disproportionately smaller healthcare and mental health facilities.
It is easy to guess where mandatory federal oversight and reform will next be imposed, as healthcare and mental health deficiencies are the real reasons why California was finally forced to address its prison overcrowding. Let's avoid that pour-over crisis in California's jails by wisely selecting rehabilitated long-term prisoners over short-termers, for mandated early release quotas... and by providing more opportunities for rehabilitation, education, and early release for the longest-sentenced prisoners, so that rehabilitative efforts can bear more fruit.