Community Commentary:

Releasing prisoners won’t help California

January 27, 2010|By Tom Harman

In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed our fiscal deficits. He lamented that the budget for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has doubled on his watch.

Moreover, the governor is tired of California being a donor state. Recent estimates suggest that California gets back 78 cents for every tax dollar sent to Washington. His answer?: “We need to work with the federal government to build a more fair and equitable financial relationship.”

I couldn’t agree more. One obvious place to start has been staring California in the face for years — illegal immigrants in our prisons. While in Washington D.C. this week, Schwarzenegger should be sure to include this important issue in his discussions with federal leaders.


The problem of criminal immigrants is the proverbial elephant in the room. It is one of the least talked-about, most important issues in reducing prison expenditures without compromising public safety.

In 2005, an authoritative study by the Government Accountability Office estimated that there are 74,000 illegal immigrants incarcerated in U.S. state prisons. More than 30,000 of these criminal immigrants are inside California state prisons. Because the federal government is constitutionally charged with controlling our borders, criminal immigrants should be in federal prisons. But for these 30,000 inmates, California’s incarceration rate would fall below the national average.

Schwarzenegger is failing to connect the dots. Just last month, Congress — under the direction of the Obama administration — agreed to cut $70 million from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program which provides funding to states and localities to help offset the high costs of incarcerating criminal immigrants.

These cuts could cost California more than $16 million in federal reimbursements.

We can’t free these prisoners, yet we are being given fewer resources to keep them incarcerated.

The governor should demand 100% compensation for housing federal prisoners.

Most importantly, we must remember that although California’s corrections system is in need of reform, it is very effective in keeping the most dangerous criminals off our streets.

Over the past 10 years, our inmate population has become increasingly violent. As the total inmate population has increased 4%, the percentage of inmates incarcerated for crimes against persons (murder, robbery, assault, battery, rape or kidnapping) has increased by 34%.

So when the governor talks about reining in prison costs, it should mean ridding our prison system of things like a Cadillac health-care system and receiving fair compensation from the federal government for housing the criminal immigrants.

Californians deserve no less.

TOM HARMAN (R-Costa Mesa) represents the 35th California District in the state Senate and is campaigning for election in 2010 as state Attorney General.

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