A Missed Opportunity: Economic Recovery Should Start With the Prisons

California is facing its worst fiscal crisis in decades, and a 3-judge federal panel just declared that it must reduce the prison population by nearly 50,000 people in order to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. But even with California’s prisons bursting at the seams, prison costs soaring past $10 billion dollars per year, and state coffers completely empty, most California legislators have their heads in the sand or their eyes on the next political prize.

First, state legislators put off until late August a vote on how to cut $1.2 billion dollars in corrections funding to address the state’s deficit.  Then a prison clean-up bill proposed by the Governor to achieve some of the required $1.2 billion in prison cuts fell victim to political cowardice. The State Senate approved a bill that would cut $524 million, but that bill was gutted in the Assembly. To blame are Assembly Republicans and Democrats alike, who are looking toward the 2010 election for Attorney General and other legislative seats.  The final bill, approved by the Senate late Friday, now provides only $325 million in savings — about one-fourth of the $1.2 billion needed in cuts to California’s national disgrace of a prison system.

This leaves a $700 – $900 million shortfall that will land on the backs of everyday Californians –making even deeper cuts to education and health care likely– unless the Governor acts.  

California is facing financial ruin. Its schools have been forced to make devastating cuts that could put a whole generation of children at a competitive disadvantage — and at higher risk of turning to crime.  The people who will be punished by the Legislature’s failure to act are the people most in need: the children and the poor, who depend on the state’s safety net. By refusing sensible reforms to save money in our corrections system, more children may lose their health care, more teachers may be laid off, and more health and safety programs may be cut.  Comprehensively addressing the corrections’ catastrophe is a necessary step toward stopping this downward spiral and beginning California’s economic recovery.

The Governor has blasted lawmakers as being “more worried about safe seats, than safe streets.”  But now that the Legislature dropped the ball, it has landed in his court.  The Governor still has the power to make smart cuts to the CDCR budget on his own, and the authority to implement the federal court decision to address the overcrowding crisis. The Governor must now assume responsibility for getting to $1.2 billion in prison cuts – as he promised to do. The governor should use his authority to make changes

The Governor should let the federal court ruling stand, and stand up as the advocate of the sensible criminal justice reform California so desperately needs.