Hoping to gain some steam for a 2014 political campaign, some of Gov. Jerry Brown's would-be rivals have tried to blame him for the mess in California's state prisons, but such charges are unfair.
Brown wasn't governor from 1982 to 2000, when the prison population grew by 500 percent. He isn't responsible for the crowded conditions that caused federal judges to issue yet another court order June 20 to reduce the inmate population to 137.5 percent of capacity (which is still pretty crowded) by the end of the year.
But if voters want someone to blame, they should look in the mirror. They passed tough sentencing laws in the 1980s and 1990s, but didn't want to pay enough to adequately house and care for the massive influx of druggies and three-strikes offenders.
Spending more on prisons is not the answer. More money needs to go into education, drug and mental health treatment and other proven crime-prevention programs to help young people and ex-convicts lead productive lives. But making such a shift will no doubt cause a rough patch.
The California prison population hit an all-time high of 144,000 in 2006. The system's capacity was set at 84,000. Conditions were so bad that inmates were dying needlessly at the rate of one per week.
Federal judges looked at the system in 2005 and declared it cruel and unusual punishment. Since then, the state has spent hundreds of millions on prison health care facilities, and last year, it implemented Brown's realignment plan: reducing prison populations by keeping lesser offenders in county facilities or on parole and, theoretically at least, strengthening drug and other programs to cut down on recidivism.
The courts ruled that it isn't enough and ordered another 9,600 inmates to be released. But most of the nonviolent, low-risk prisoners are already gone. Nearly 90 percent of the current prisoners are there for a serious or violent felony.
At some point, Brown will have to release as many nonviolent offenders as he can find. But now is the time to adopt a smarter approach to crime along the lines of programs pioneered by state Attorney General Kamala Harris in San Francisco.
Harris developed strategies to keep kids in school and find jobs for young men at risk of turning criminal. She also created job opportunities for people released from prison. Over time, these strategies will cost taxpayers less and reduce crime, but they require patience.
The alternative is to accept California's current recidivism rate, the highest in the nation, and spending more on prisons.
The governor threatens to appeal the latest court order to the U.S. Supreme Court. Why delay the inevitable? California needs to own up to its responsibility and to focus on strategies to divert people from a life of crime to productive lives.