Category Archives: Prisons

More on Mandatory Sentencing: The Big Taboo of The Prison Debate

(Cross-posted to dKos and MyDD. – promoted by SFBrianCL)

Last week, I wrote an article about the 3 Strikes Law and its effect on the California prison system.  Of course, Arnold is talking about building more prisons.  But, the problem is really deeper than that.  And in today’s California Report on KQED, a discussion about California’s prisons centered around the question of whether to build new prisons and how to actually incorporate the “and Rehabilitation” to the Department of Corrections.  Of course, the question of the strength of the prison guards union, CCPOA, came up.  Strangely, the CCPOA’s defense to that claim was “If we controlled the system, would we really be complaining so strenuously.” I’m not sure that such a statement is really their best argument, but that’s really a sidebar to this discussion.  A real kernel of truth was revealed at the end, when the commentator said that (rough paraphrase), “After the election, perhaps the government can face what has been the big taboo of the prison debate, the mandatory sentencing guidelines which are keeping thousands of prisoners in prison.”  The actual program will likely appear on the California Report website tomorrow, I will try to correct it then.

Indeed, mandatory sentencing is the Big Taboo.  In Joel Dyer’s The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime, he explains why mandatory sentencing is so important to the prison industrial complex.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, the most powerful judge in the nation right now, said the following of mandatory sentencing:

I think I’m in agreement with most judges in the federal system that mandatory minimums are an imprudent, unwise and often unjust mechanism for sentencing – Justice Anthony Kennedy in 1994 Congressional hearings

Lots more on the flip…

America has approximately 5% of the world’s population, but approximately 25% of the world’s prison population.  We have well over 2 million prisoners, which equates to 724 prisoners per 100,000 citizens.  At our current rate of prison growth, it will not be long until a full percent of our nation will be in prison. (Source: BBC News) Put in another way, our rate of prison growth is untenable, and unquestionably related to mandatory sentencing guidelines, of which 3 strikes is just one.

Resolving The Big Taboo really involves focusing on two issues, which, while related, are really separate problems:

1. The “Tough on Crime” meme

George Bush the elder liked to fashion himself “tough on crime.”  He ran on his toughness against Dukakis using the now infamous Willie Horton campaign.  However, Dyer also points out a quote by then Congressman George H.W. Bush from 1970 when he voted to repeal the last of the federal minimums:

“Contrary to what one might imagine, however, this bill will result in better justice and more appropriate sentences. … Federal judges are almost unanimously opposed to mandatory minimums, because they remove a great deal of the court’s discretion. … As a result [of repealing mandatory minimums], we will undoubtably have more equitable action by the courts, with actually more convictions where they are called for, and fewer disproportionate sentences.” – Congressman George H.W. Bush, 1970

During the 70s, the last of the mandatory sentences were gone.  They had been tossed on the scrapheap of bad ideas from the 1800s.  Congress understood that they were impractical But by the mid 1980s, Congress reversed course by passing the Sentencing Reform Act.  And by the 1990s, the tough on crime meme held complete sway, prompting Orrin Hatch to say:

The reason why we went to mandatory minimums is because of these soft-on-crime judges that we have in our society, judges who just will not get tough on crime. (Cited in Dyer, originally from Frontline, 4/28/98)

As can be seen in the contrast of these two quotes, there was a fundamental sea change in the mood of the country.  We began to get more isolated, locked up in our own homes, in constant fear of the next boogeyman to come down the street.  It’s also what W is using in his march against civil liberties: Fear®.  Fear Sells.  It works, it got W re-elected in 2004, just as it worked for his father in 1988.

But tough on crime isn’t enough.  It doesn’t address the root of crime and only results in increased prison populations.  The increased prison populations breed additional crime, and we end up with a vicious cycle.  Recidivism increases and the overall crime rate is not decreased, but rather increased.  We get large, extremely violent prison gangs that end up controlling the drug trade from within the prisons that are able to send messages within prisons.  We get many things, but the one thing we do not get from being “tough on crime” is less crime.

2. The Failed “War on Drugs”.

It’s time to change the framing on the war on drugs.  It’s not a war on drugs.  We aren’t putting drugs in jail (although there are plenty there, which makes the prison environment doubly unsafe), we aren’t trying drugs for crimes of addiction, we aren’t removing the children of drugs from their parents.  No, we are doing this to Americans.  In America.

Further, the drug war has had bizarre twists and turns.  For example, crack cocaine is punished far more heavily than traditional cocaine?  Why?  Who knows, but it is difficult to see any reason other than the one based on poverty. 

The War on Drugs is Lost.  It’s time to accept that and deal with the problem in a more realistic way.  Prop 36, which was recently “renewed” by the legislature in a controversial move that included possible brief jail stays, set a tone of rehabilitation.  However, drug treatment needs to be a priority not only for drug offenders, but also for other criminals.  The number of crimes that are related to drugs is substantially larger than the actual number of drug offenses.  It is imperative that we solve the root problem, addiction, and not keep trying to punish addicts into submission.

In his testimony to Congress, William B. Moffitt, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers closed with the following statement.  I could not hope to do better, so I will reprint that here:

No; my question to you is when will our society be unable to pay, fiscally, for incarcerating our own? When will our society be unable to cope with our bloated prison population? When will our very fabric crumble as the hundreds of thousands of individuals who we have locked away for five, ten or twenty years, return to our midst, unenlightened and disfranchised. For I do not believe that they have assimilate and become “one of us.” I believe that they will feel betrayed and angry and we will have no answers only regrets.

The question that remains is when will you, our elected officials recognize that we cannot continue down this path of ever increasing incarceration. I will end my testimony with some remarks from Don Williamson, Philadelphia Daily News, November 4, 1985.

If for no more honorable reason than our own societal self preservation, we need to heed where the current state of affairs is taking us: A raging epidemic of poor, dumb children in the richest, most educated nation on earth can be ignored (for now) because these children have no power, no constituency. They cannot vote.

They have no money. They own no property. There is no well financed, influential Washington based lobby group insuring that their birth right is protected.

But there will be more of them every day. And they are having babies who will be poorer, and dumber then they are. They will be poorer and dumber and have no allegiance to this or any nation, no concept of right or wrong, no adherence to cherished traditions and no compassion or regard for the elders who abandoned them. Soon fourteen million poor children will become fourteen million unskilled uneducated, angry dangerous adults. There will not be enough jails, enough bullets, enough quick fix federal programs. There will be them and an older feebler, increasingly dependent us. They will blot out the sky, foul the air, make the water unfit to drink. They will steal tomorrow. They are time bombs.

They will steal tomorrow. And society will have aided and abetted the theft. (National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers May 11, 2000)

3 Strikes: The Real Problem with California’s Prisons

(Also cross-posted at dKos and MyDD. Feel free to recommend. 😉 – promoted by SFBrianCL)

Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing a new plan to build more prisons, saying that we “desperately” need new prison cells to accommodate our exploding prison population.

Saying that federal courts could seize control of California’s overcrowded prisons, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday called a special legislative session on the corrections system and said the state must build more lockups soon.

Schwarzenegger urged lawmakers into action less than a week after a federal court monitor sharply rebuked him for retreating from prison reforms he had promised after taking office in 2003. Some critics called the governor’s move an election-year political gimmick. (LA Times 6/27/06)

But, even with all the discussion of the prison crisis, the real cause of the problem is ignored. 

Lots, lots more on the flip…

Arnold had some specifics to his plan:

In his speech, Schwarzenegger offered a four-part plan that he said would relieve overcrowding in the nation’s largest prison system and would help more convicts stay crime-free once released.

With the inmate population at an all-time high and 16,000 inmates sleeping in gyms, hallways and even outside at one prison, the governor said California “desperately” needs more cells. He embraced a bill by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) to use lease revenue bonds, which do not require voter approval, to build two prisons for at least $500 million apiece. And he asked for authority to expedite spending and contracting.

Schwarzenegger revived a proposal to shift 4,500 low-risk female inmates to private correctional centers closer to their homes. He also called for moving thousands of male convicts near the end of their sentences to other detention facilities, to better prepare them for success upon release — and free up prison beds. (LA Times 6/27/06)

Now, there have been many commentators on these issues citing all the various problems that have caused the prison crisis.  You know, poor planning and under construction of prisons, the fight over prison placement, and all that stuff.  Bill Bradley thinks the real problem is the battle between prison administration and the prison guard’s union (CCPOA).

Yes, we have terrible conditions in our prison.  And the battle between the union and the administration has become, to be polite, a distraction.  But all of these are really just symptoms aren’t they?  We have overcrowded prisons because we have too many prisoners.  We have locked up too many people.  In other words, the real problem is the 3 Strikes Law.

According to a 2004 report, 3 strikes accomplishes very little but costs a great deal.  A summary of the 3 part report that the Justice Policy Institute Published:

1. 3 Strikes has significantly contributed to an increase in California’s prison population. (Still Striking Out)
2. Nearly two thirds of the second or third strikers were incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.
3. California had four times as many people incarcerated under Three Strikes as the other 21 Three Strikes states for which there were data.
4. There was no substantial link between the use of Three Strikes and declines in crime.
5. 3 Strikes disproportionately impacts African-Americans and Latinos on a statewide basis. (Racial Divide)

You can read the reports on the Justice Policy website, they are excellent resources.  But I think even if you were a conservative, you would pay attention to this number: $10.5 billion.  That’s how much 3 strikes has cost us since 1994.  Over 10 billion, which could have been used to improve our schools, preschool programs, and other necessary services, many of which would have lowered the crime rate just as effectively.  (Or if you’re a conservative, it could have gone to drowning the government in the bathtub through tax cuts.  Thanks Grover!) One of the most attractive aspects of Prop 82, the preschool initiative, was that it had the ability to reduce the crime rate.

A 1998 RAND study found the following:

Research by RAND has found that alternative crime control policies can also be more costeffective. Their 1998 report, Diverting Children from a Life of Crime: Measuring Costs and Benefits, compared the cost-effectiveness of four childhood intervention programs—home visits and early childcare; parent training; graduation incentives; and delinquent supervision —with the Three Strikes law. The results? Parent training, graduation incentives, and delinquent supervision were more cost-effective in terms of the number of serious crimes prevented per dollars expended. Graduation incentives were four times more cost-effective: while it would cost $3,881 per serious crime prevented, Three Strikes was expected to cost $16,000 per serious felony prevented. (JPI, page 20)

So, even if you are a conservative, you’d rather spend $3,881 rather than $16,000 to accomplish the same thing, right?

Wrong.  The proponents of 3 strikes used Fear® to sell this, and continue to use Fear® in the defeat of Prop 66 in 2002 that would have excepted nonviolent offenses from 3 Strikes. 

So, now we are now getting worse results by spending more money. But nobody has the courage to say this.  To challenge the “Tough on Crime”™ meme would be political suicide, so we pack our prisons full of African-Americans and Latinos.  At some point we will have to see that continually locking up more people will not be a successful program.  What is that line? 

Before the “Tough on Crime”™ meme was really going strong, there were 3 times more black men in college than in prison.  Today, there are more black men in prison than in college.  Do we need to lock up all of our minority youth before we feel safe?

So, while the governor talks about the “desperate” prison crisis, think about where the desperation really lies.  We desperately need to stop locking up large swaths of our youth.  We desperately need more funding for crime prevention programs.  We desperately need more funding for education.  We do not desperately need new prisons. 

Until we at least amend 3 strikes to exclude non-violent offenses, or preferably repeal it altogether, we should not build any new prisons.  We don’t need them.  Our artificially inflated prison population will return to reasonable levels, and we can use the money for better purposes and programs.  Purposes and programs which actually lower the crime rate.

California Blog Roundup 6/13/06

Today’s California Blog Roundup is on the flip. Teasers: Phil Angelides, Arnold Schwarzenegger, CA-50, Richard Pombo, Jerry McNerney, John Doolittle, Marcy Winograd, prisons, immigration, biodiesel, redistricting, reform.


CA-50 (Finally, the end of the post-mortems)

Other Electoral


The Merry-Go-Round that’s Not so merry

Gov. Schwarzenegger appointed a new acting secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, two months after appointing the previous acting secretary.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday named James Tilton as acting secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, replacing Jeanne Woodford.

Tilton, a former budget expert at the department, currently works as a program budget manager, focusing on the corrections budget, in Schwarzenegger’s Department of Finance.
Before naming Tilton, Schwarzenegger on Thursday confirmed that Woodford had stepped down.
Rod Hickman, the governor’s first corrections secretary abruptly resigned in February.(SacBee 4/20/06)

This is a mess, and once again, Arnold has failed to provide the leadership necessary to correct the situation.  He is content to stand on the sidelines and criticize:

The Republican governor said the prison system is “in kind of a disastrous situation” and has been “for a long time.” Fixing the prison system, Schwarzenegger said, is a “slow process.”

“Kind of”…uh, yeah.  It’s kind of in a bad situation.  A federal judge is about to take over the entire ($1Billion) state prison healthcare system.  The system is about to collapse due to the exploding three strikes population.  Yet all the governor can do is state the obvious and say it’s hard?

How about rolling up your sleeves and getting to work on that disaster?  Take responsibility for seeing that the situation is resolved.  But the Governor has failed to accept any of the challenges and has failed to provide the leadership that we need in Sacramento to get a workable prison system.

Why can the governor not challenge his own party?  The criminilization of our youth has got to stop.  We serve nobody by locking up large chunks of our young adult male populations.  We need to rework 3 strikes, we need to rework sentencing, and improve treatment and rehabilitation programs so that we can clear out the prison system.  We need to get these prisoners back to a situation that they can contribute to our state.

So, Arnold, instead of pushing this merry-go-round around and around, why can’t you consider stopping this and working for a stable, permanent solution.

A little digression on the flip…

And a digression:
Hey…just a question…why can the state provide healthcare for inmates and not law-abiding citizens?  Oh yeah, b/c the state has to under the constitution.  When we have to, we can.  Health care needs to be that pressing of an issue.  The state needs health care for the masses, no matter how we do it.