JAMES A. ARDAIZ: Honest look at crime’s true costs

This article appeared in the Opinion Section of the Fresno Bee

Posted at 12:00 AM on Friday, May. 07, 2010

By James A. Ardaiz, former Presiding Justice for the Fifth District Court of Appeals

Recently this paper made an editorial comment regarding the cost of prison guards and impliedly related that criticism to sentencing policy. Respectfully I submit this misdirects the issue.

The constant mantra of prison overcrowding due to stringent sentencing laws is misleading. It ignores the basic issue of whether the people incarcerated belong there. The reality is no new prisons have been built in California in many years.

Obviously as prison population increases there will be an increase in prison population density if there are no new prisons. However, an increase in prison population density does not support the conclusion that such prisoners do not belong in prison.

In January 2000, the prison population was 162,664. In January 2010, it was 168,900, an increase of approximately 6,000 in 10 years. The reality is that our current prisoner to general population percentage has decreased during the last 10 years despite a 12% general population increase.

What is the current prisoner demographic based on our sentencing laws? Of the current prison population, 55.5% are incarcerated for crimes against persons. Only 26.6% of our present prison population has no current or prior serious or violent felony conviction.

What our sentencing laws have changed is the type of offender incarcerated — three out of four prisoners have present or prior convictions for crimes against persons — the most dangerous type of offender. Unless detractors do not believe such offenders should be in prison for society’s protection (many of whom have at least four or five prior felony convictions) then what we are really arguing about is for how long.

If someone wants to challenge that issue then their argument must also accept the responsibility of the consequences of such releases and debate whether long term incarceration for those offenders is effective in crime reduction.

For example, 41,000 prisoners (25% of present prison population) are currently serving time under California’s Three Strikes law as second- or third-strikers.

You cannot be sentenced pursuant to Three Strikes unless you are convicted of a new felony and you have a prior conviction for a serious or violent felony, a specific legal category of our most dangerous and life-threatening offenses which include murder, rape, kidnapping, carjacking, burglary of a residence and child molestation. Each one is clearly a habitual offender with a demonstrated propensity to commit serious and violent crimes based on their conviction for those crimes and who have committed new felonies. Where exactly should they be?

It costs money to incarcerate but crime also costs money in terms of consequences. The real question should be whether targeting this type of offender has been effective in preventing crime.

Since the inception of Three Strikes in 1993, the murder rate between 1993 and 1999 showed a 54% decline; rape a 25% decline, robbery a 56% decline, burglary a 50% decline and auto theft a 51% decline. As of 2008 according to the California Department of Justice we remain at a homicide rate of 48% lower than 1993, rape 25% lower with similar statistics for other violent crimes.

Just for a reality check, if homicide rates continued to the present at the annual rate of 1993 the number of additional murder victims would have been approximately 61,425. In point of fact it was 37,744.

Therefore, statistically approximately 23,681 people are alive today who would have died if homicide rates continued at the 1993 level. The same analysis shows 29,290 fewer women raped than would have been assaulted if rape rates continued at the 1993 level.

If those making a cost benefit argument regarding incarceration want to look at actual cost versus projected savings for prisoner reduction, then they should include projected cost and actual savings in terms of lives saved and women’s dignity maintained.

As for cost benefit, I am happy to leave the issue up to the more than 23,000 people walking around today who would have been buried already as well as the almost 30,000 women who don’t live every day with the nightmare of rape that would have been part of their lives if things hadn’t changed.

I ask the detractors a question: If they want to release prisoners to lower the cost of incarceration, what is their acceptable cost benefit?