Tuesday, September 23, 2008

California prison reform package implodes amidst partisan bickering

Regular readers know that the Texas Legislature in the last two sessions successfully forged remarkable bipartisan agreements supporing key first steps toward reforming the criminal justice system in ways that reduce the number of new inmates entering Texas prisons, though we still have a long way to go.

In California, by contrast, partisan bickering this month killed a legislative package aimed at cutting the state's prison population and reducing the corrections budget, thanks to tuff on crime demagoguing, largely along partisan lines.

To provide a little background, it's worth mentioning that California's prison system currently suffers an even more significant crisis than Texas - by far - because unlike here, the US Department of Justice has not been shy about stepping in to address shortcomings in both juvenile and adult systems. In 2007 California's "Little Hoover Commission" issued a report titled, "Solving California's Corrections Crisis: Time is Running Out," which outlined the problem thusly in a transmission letter to the Lege:
California’s prisons are out of space and running out of time.

The State already has ceded control to the federal courts for prison mental health, juvenile justice and the prison health system. In December, a federal judge ordered the State to fix the overcrowding problem within six months, or face the prospect of a prison population cap.

The State is past the point for assigning blame. The urgency of the crisis demands we look now to those who can produce a solution. That responsibility lies with the Governor and the Legislature. You have the authority and, as California’s leaders, must share the duty of fixing California’s failed corrections system.

A default strategy of waiting until federal judges order needed changes is not governing. The Governor and Legislature need to take the initiative away from federal courts by demonstrating you have a better plan. That way, the Governor and Legislature can regain the confidence of the courts as well as the Californians they govern. ...

The Governor and Legislature must find the political will to move past rhetoric and address ways to solve the prison population crisis and make good on promises to improve public safety. “Tough on Crime” sentencing laws have to be judged by outcomes and matched with fiscal responsibility. To ensure public safety, reforms will have to jettison posturing to make room for smart on crime policies.

You must act decisively on the problem or turn it over to an independent body, insulated from politics, that can. Our recommendation and preference is for you to do it yourselves.

The problem does not need further study. The State knows what the answers are, thanks to nearly two decades of work by such groups as the Blue Ribbon Commission on Population Management, the Corrections Independent Review Panel and a series of reports by this Commission.

Despite ample evidence and recommendations, policy-makers have been unwilling to take on the problem in a purposeful, constructive way. The consequences of failing to act aggressively now leave the State open to losing control of the State correctional system and with it, control of the state budget.
And yet, despite the threat of courts taking over their decisionmaking role, at much greater cost to taxpayers, and a massive state budget crisis, the California Legislature couldn't muster the political will to pass anything constructive. Reports the Sacramento Bee:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers agreed earlier this year on a set of carefully written reforms that would have made the prisons more effective, and cheaper. Democrats estimated the savings at $445 million.

The elements were:

• Parole reforms. Instead of the standard three-year parole after serving a prison sentence, nonserious, nonviolent offenders would be discharged from parole after five months of clean time.

• Early release of dying or paraplegic offenders who pose no risk.

• Good-time credits for inmates who complete training programs, providing incentives to prepare for life after prison.

• Updated sentencing thresholds for property crimes (such as grand theft and forgery). For example, the grand theft threshold is $400, unchanged from 1982. That's $925 in today's dollars.

This $445 million package was whittled to $175 million in August. But even that minimal package was unacceptable to Republicans, who tried to paint the Democrats as soft on crime, when in fact the proposals arguably would have made Californians safer. In the end, the package dwindled to just $14 million in savings.

With federal courts already so actively involved in oversight of California's corrections system, this failure to rein in rising prison populations amounts to a breach of fiduciary responsibility. The Sac Bee blames Republicans in the legislature, but that body is controlled by Democrats so the majority party clearly couldn't muster its forces to counter concerted opposition.

I've frequently wondered why USDOJ has targeted California prisons and youth detention centers so aggressively, but not those in Texas where many of the health and safety outcomes that spawned court action in the Golden State are just as bad or worse?

My working theory is that Texas has been spared systematic, Ruiz-style prison litigation over the last seven years because there was a Texan in the White House and, for a time, atop the pyramid at the Department of Justice itself. It's hard to imagine Alberto Gonzales unleashing the hounds at USDOJ on his buddies back in Texas. By contrast, California is a "blue" state run by Democrats, particularly before election of the Governator, so politically it made a more inviting target for partisan Texans in the Bush administration.

If that interpretation is accurate, Texas may not be spared a similar fate once a senator from Arizona or Illinois takes control of the reins of power.


Anonymous said...

And in general it's all a commentary on the uselessness of trying to incarcerate yourself out of social problems...some of whom, like illicit drugs, only became 'problems' when they became illicit.

Gregory G said...

Ask yourself this if you take roughly 2% of the population and then double that, how much money is taken out of the economy. Be it from legitamate or illigitamate sources. Multiply that by a pissed off father, nurturing mother plus a person who has a hell of a time getting a job. Throw those people in an even smaller box, you get rage, Discourse and a huge

Anonymous said...

The cost of incarcerating an inmate is almost always far greater than the costs created by his crimes -- and that's assuming he did anything in the first place! "Conservatives" will vote for tens of billions of dollars for incaration but not one penny for welfare or education.

Gregory G said...

To anonymous. You are right it is ignorance that leads the feirce hand of justice and profit of the popular option/vote that engineered itself around being economically viable.