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The Reaction: Tough On Crime Robots Cannot Come To Terms With Reality

by: David Dayen

Wed Aug 05, 2009 at 11:44:41 AM PDT

The federal ruling to reduce the prison population by over 40,000 is the result of a years-long, if not decades-long process, where the failed leaders run amok in Sacramento have let the corrections system grow completely out of control, preferring to warehouse prisoners into modified Public Storage units instead of embarking on same, smart policies that would save us money and make us safer.  In response to this damaging comment on the state's failure, the political leadership has... signed up for more failure:

Attorney General Jerry Brown said in an interview that the order is probably not appealable, but eventually the state will have to consider going directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, marking the first time the high court would face such a case.

"I think the Supreme Court would see it differently," Brown said.

State officials said the proper solution is for the governor and legislators to work out a reduction plan as funding becomes available. The state should not be forced to function under the hammer of a federal court order, they said.

"We just don't agree that the federal courts should be ordering us to take these steps," said Matthew Cate, secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

How dare the federal courts order anyone around to respect Constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment!  Who the hell do they think they are, a co-equal branch of government?

What's so interesting about this is how abnormal it is.  Federal courts grant a significant amount of leeway to the states to manage affairs.  But when a state consistently and deliberately violates Constitutional rights without letup, they must act.  And that's been true for a long time.

California's archipelago of 33 prisons houses more than 170,000 inmates, nearly twice the number it was designed to safely hold. Almost all of its facilities are bursting at the seams: More than 16,000 prisoners sleep on what are known as "ugly beds" - extra bunks stuffed into cells, gyms, dayrooms, and hallways. [Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger has referred to the system as a "powder keg."

....Even as Schwarzenegger has promised reform, the corrections budget has exploded during his term, from $4.7 billion in fiscal 2004 to nearly $10 billion in fiscal 2007, or about $49,000 for each adult inmate.

....For more than three decades, California has been trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle where putting more people in prison for longer periods of time has become the answer to every new crime to capture the public's attention - from drug dealing and gangbanging to tragic child abductions. Spurred on by a powerful prison guards' union and politicians afraid of looking soft on crime, corrections has become a bottomless pit, where countless lives and dollars disappear year after year. And now that it has metastasized to the point where even a tough-guy governor and the guards agree that the prisons must be downsized or else (see "When Prison Guards Go Soft"), every attempt at change seems stymied by inertia. The sheer size of the system has become the biggest obstacle to finding alternatives to warehousing criminals without preparing them for anything more than another cycle of incarceration. "The public believes the prison population reflects the crime rate," says James Austin, a corrections consultant who has served on several prison-reform panels in California. "That's just not true. It's because of California's policies and the way it runs the system."

This is a policy failure driven by a political failure, a cowardly series of actions that arises from a broken system of government.  Dan Walters happens to be spot-on today - politicians have played on people's fears for 30 years and, faced with the tragedy they created, delayed and procrastinated until it became so torturous that the courts had to step in.  From the three-strikes law to the 1,000 sentencing laws passed by the Legislature, all increasing sentences, nobody comes out looking good in this failure of leadership.  Even the Attorney General of the United States recognizes that we cannot jail our way out of crime problems.

"We will not focus exclusively on incarceration as the most effective means of protecting public safety," Holder told the American Bar Association delegates meeting here for their annual convention. "Since 2003, spending on incarceration has continued to rise, but crime rates have flattened."

"Today, one out of every 100 adults in America is incarcerated - the highest incarceration rate in the world," he said. But the country has reached a point of diminishing returns at which putting even greater percentages of America's citizens behind bars won't cut the crime rate.

Mark Kleiman has additional good thoughts.

David Dayen :: The Reaction: Tough On Crime Robots Cannot Come To Terms With Reality
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Judge found that release would increase public safety (5.00 / 1)
KQED's Forum had pretty good coverage of this issue:
The most interesting thing I learned is that the Judge found that California could take half the money it spent on confining certain people, invest it in helping them on the outside, pocket the difference, and increase public safety at the same time.

Now is the time to address this problem. (5.00 / 1)
Anyone interested in getting a well-written summary of terrible prison conditions and the State's admitted failure to address them should read the Court's 184 page opinion. While some (including, unfortunately, our current state Attorney General) will try to make this into a simplistic political argument, the overwhelming factual evidence clearly establishes that prison business cannot continue as usual.

Just as we are seeking to do with health care reform, progressives need to seize the moment to promote truly effective reforms.

We need to start with addressing the error in the conventional framing that this is about being "tough on crime" vs. "weak on crime". Anyone who reads that opinion will recognize that the historical definition of being "tough" has in fact made California MORE dangerous.

Given that a federal court has now ordered the state to do so, we need to take immediate steps to rethink how we handle prisons and punishment. Some good places to start:

1.  Figure out how to meaningfully triage the prison population. Drug users, check kiters and shoplifters don't need the same maximum security facilities as killers do. Some of these folks can be sent to camps (which we need to establish more of). Others can be released on the bracelet.

We can do this without "coddling" the murderers, rapists and other violent criminals who everyone wants to stay behind bars.

2.  Enhance and fully fund EFFECTIVE mental health and drug treatment programs.

3.  Stop feeding the beast at its primary source: teenagers. For every dollar we spend on working with kids who are on the road to delinquency we will save $100 in future jail and prison costs. Immediately prohibit schools from expelling kids but instead require them to provide more intensive wrap-around services to nip the criminality in the bud. Fully fund self-esteem, non-violence and drug/alcohol programs for youth.

4.   Revise sentencing statutes to reward folks for getting educated and enlightened in prison. And provide adequate services to let this happen.

5.   Make prison WORK. Rather than have guys sit around all day, provide sufficient education, work and counseling programs so that the person coming out is a wiser, healthier and more responsible person than the person who went in.

6.   Figure out how to deal with the political disaster known as the prison guards' lobby. They have been allowed to undermine most efforts at reform, from alternative sentencing to prison work programs. They are to prison reform what the teabaggers are to health care reform. While the guards certainly need a union, they need an enlightened one.

7.   Rethink the role of parole and probation officers. We give them two competing tasks: (1) help the parolee/probationer succeed and (2) bust them for failing. Given the choice between being counselor or cop, most parole and probation officers choose being the cop. As the Court's opinion notes, this fills the prisons with people there for small time re-offenses and it also undermines any meaningful support that the releasee might otherwise get from that service.

The California parole system has become a bloated bureaucratic system which has failed miserably to actually help people succeed. Reforming it is as important as reforming the prison itself.

The federal court ruling will provide a "shock doctrine" opportunity to re-frame California criminal justice policies. We need to take advantage of that opportunity.

Absolutely right! (0.00 / 0)
This is the course law-enforcement professionals (except the prison guards union) endorse. And I completely agree.

One county sheriff said it well. He said county jails tend to do exactly as you recommend because they know from experience that they're less likely to see these guests back again if they help them straighten their lives out. He said there were some people who were just "bad," and he didn't know why. But most of the people they arrested had problems that could be addressed. If they were, the inmates were less likely to repeat. It's really that simple.

[ Parent ]
What Jackie Speir said about this (0.00 / 0)
When she was running for lt. governor a few years back, I heard her speak in Mt. View. She observed that the state used to spend more money on the UC system and less on prisons. Now the funding was exactly reversed and she did not think it was unrelated. She further related the story of a trip she took with other lawmakers to CA women's correctional facility. Unlike the others Speir spent the night. She said she heard story after story of women unable to deal with poverty, abuse, addiction, and other social problems. And she wondered in that speech if we couldn't address these problems instead of building more prisons and locking more people up.

Interestingly, when I used to edit a magazine targeted to the law-enforcement community, part of my job was to interview city police chiefs, county sheriffs, prosecutors, and such. After hearing the get-tough line from politicians all these years, I expected more of the same. I didn't hear it. I was surprised to find that the law-enforcement professionals I talked to agreed with Ms. Speir and spoke with contempt about political vote-pandering that skewed our state spending priorities away from programs that would address crime more effectively. They said these tough-on-crime stances were proven vote getters, but far less effective at really reducing crime.

When people who do this for a living tell me that social spending would do more to reduce crime than prisons, I listen!

jerry brown admitted the same thing this year (0.00 / 0)
he gave an interview this spring, I saw an excerpt in the San Bernadino Sun...Brown said that one of the problems with the state budget was that at one point and time , UC spending was 17% and prison spending was single digits...now both prisons and UC spending were around 17% of the budget. Brown then went on to point out that increase as one of the problems in the fiscal crisis.

Too bad Moonbeams Brown can't take his own advice. Maybe he can see through his own BS enough to trigger parole reform, if early release is too unpalatable.  

[ Parent ]
he is (0.00 / 0)
overstating the UC budget.  It is actually much lower than 17%.

[ Parent ]
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