SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. Jeffrey Beard has watched America's prisons grow larger and larger every year adding prisoner after prisoner. He began working in the Pennsylvania Corrections system in the early 1970s when there were about 8,000 prisoners. He was secretary of corrections by the time he left in 2010 and by that time Pennsylvania had more than 50,000 people in its prisons.
It's a trend that's matched all around the country. Jeffrey Beard is now secretary of corrections and rehabilitation in the state of California. A couple of years ago, that state's prison system had grown so perilously overcrowded the Supreme Court ruled it was cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000.
That job now falls to Jeffrey Beard. Secretary Beard joins us from Sacramento. Thanks so much for being with us.
JEFFREY BEARD: Sure thing, Scott. I'm happy to be here today.
SIMON: And why is - as a generalization - why has the prison population grown to large?
BEARD: I think it, back in the 1970s, there was a number of things going on. We began our war on drugs, starting locking up people who used drugs and sold drugs for longer and longer periods of time. At the same time, the public was very concerned about violent criminals, and sentences got longer for those violent criminals. And so today, the prison populations around the country have been driven largely by the fact that we have locked up more and more less serious offenders and we have locked up offenders for longer periods of time.
SIMON: What are the consequences of having so many people locked up? I mean, certainly for the people who are inside the prisons, certainly for their families, but also the communities from which they come.
BEARD: Well, there's many consequences. First of all, you're taking people out of the communities, you're sending them away into the prisons for many, many years. They get lost from their families and then when they're released and come back into the community, they have a very difficult time getting jobs, they have a difficult time finding a place to live. They have the stigma of incarceration that's hanging over them and it just becomes very, very difficult for them to reconnect to the communities.
SIMON: Secretary Beard, I've heard a number of commissions who have studied the matter say that there's a need in the United States for what are sometimes called creative sentencing arrangements or alternatives to incarceration. How do you see it?
BEARD: What you have to do is look at who's going to the prison system in the first place, and about 70 percent of the people who go into prisons have a substance abuse problem. So instead of sending those people with substance abuse problems into the prison system, if we instead did a better job of providing substance abuse treatment to them in the communities, fewer of them would end up interfacing with the criminal justice system in the first place.
About 20 percent of the inmates who we get into the prison system have a mental health problem. Again, if we did a better job dealing with the mentally ill in the community, we could reduce the number of them who then interface with the criminal justice system. Many of the inmates who come into the prison system have low educational level, they have no job skills. And so if we did a better job in our high schools, increased our graduation rates, all of those things could help reduce the number of people who end up going into our prison system.
SIMON: Secretary Beard, with respect, I think, as I don't have to tell you, there are also people who say, look, I'm sorry for the fact that this man or woman who committed a crime had such poor prospects in life and has such a low education, but if they did something wrong, there's a crime that they have to pay for.
BEARD: Well, yes. At the point that they commit the crime, I agree with you, they have to pay for that crime. If it's a less serious crime, however, they don't necessarily have to go into the prison system. And if you decide you want to put them in the prison system, that's fine. But what's going to happen is they're going to be more likely to go out and commit new crimes again in the future.
So, I mean, that is one way to handle it. That's what we've been doing in this country now for years. And what we see is our prison population's exploding and people sitting in jails for longer and longer periods of time. And it has cost an awful lot of money. You know, it's a matter, do you want to keep spending billions and billions and billions of dollars locking up people in an unproductive fashion, or do you want to try to deal with the root causes that brought people to prison in the first place. And do you want to also try to deal with some of these less serious offenders in a different way and perhaps save yourself an awful lot of money and reduce the amount of crime that's occurring in our communities as it is?
SIMON: Jeffrey Beard is California's secretary of corrections and rehabilitation. He joins us from Sacramento. Secretary Beard, thanks for being with us.
BEARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.