Letter: ‘Three strikes’ is too expensive

March 2, 2012

For now, let’s leave aside the disproportionate effects the “three strikes” legislation would have (“In support of ‘three strikes,’ letter, Feb. 17). This is all about the numbers.

Many of the legislators in favor of this bill would have us believe that the net effect of three strikes combined with other provisions would be an equal or lesser population in our prison system. Given that a large number of their colleagues would be happy to keep the three strikes provision in the final bill without including any of the measures that would reduce the prison population, I am skeptical at best that a smaller population would be the final outcome.

Reducing that population is critical. Even if we changed nothing, our current system is unsustainable. Don’t take my word for it: read “A System Master Plan for Massachusetts Corrections: The Corrections Master Plan, The Final Report,” published by the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management. Capital Asset Management is not generally thought of as a source of social or political posturing. It is, though, a department we might look to if we’re concerned with real numbers.

In its 370-plus pages, the word “overcrowding” occurs 64 times. This makes sense, given that our prisons are currently running at between 142 percent and 148 percent of capacity. (If you don’t think prison overcrowding is a problem, I invite you to take a look at California and Texas, then ask the Supreme Court for its opinion. Conveniently, the court gave it in the Brown v. Plata decision last year.) Without any changes to our corrections system, we will need to spend a minimum of $538 million to meet the needs of the population we have now.

The numbers clearly indicate a need to reduce or eliminate minimum mandatory sentences. They do not indicate a need for three strikes legislation.

I am disappointed that so many social conservatives fail to be fiscally conservative. If we pass three strikes, a likely outcome is that we will have to build more prisons within the next decade, and building prisons is expensive. According to the South Carolina Department of Corrections, a new prison can cost anywhere from $9 million to $141 million. (Add this to the $538 million above.) At a time when our state’s education (both K-12 and higher), transportation and Health and Human Services systems have been getting cut for years, it amazes me that we would not focus exclusively on reducing the population and therefore the total costs.

Let me know if there’s an extra half-billion dollars in the state that I’ve missed. Until then, the money we would spend as a result of denying parole is better spent on education, abuse prevention, job training and youth programs if we are truly serious about public safety in the present and future.

Deborah Nam-Krane, Jamaica Plain