Commentary: California's prison issues must be fixed

California finally is poised to do something historic to reverse two decades of prison overcrowding — and get prison budgets under control.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a package to reduce the prison population based on the recommendations of more than a dozen studies since 1990. The Senate already passed it. The Assembly needs to seize this opportunity.

Members have been letting fears of a "Willie Horton" (an ad campaign featuring a released convict who committed a rape in Massachusetts in the 1980s) scare them away from this chance to do something so good for the state.

The reality is that the currently overcrowded prisons are creating Willie Hortons every day. Would the proposed reforms guarantee that no ex-prisoner would ever commit a heinous crime? No. But the reforms should make that less likely while making the system more manageable.

This debate needs to be turned on its head. Defenders of the current system, not those who support reform, are the ones churning out Willie Hortons. For the billions California spends on prisons — driving out spending in other areas such as higher education — the state has one of the nation's highest recidivism rates.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Sacramento Bee.