Tag Archives: sentencing guidelines

California’s Prison Despair Is Still With Us

(Hey, look who it is, and he’s drawing attention to the prison crisis again. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

(this is cross-posted at FDL News)

When I wrote regularly for Calitics, the progressive blog for California politics, I took a particular interest in the prison crisis, which has reached epidemic proportions in the Golden State.  The health care system has already been taken over by a federal receiver because it violated the prisoners’ Constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment, with at least one prisoner dying each week from medical neglect.  The entire system, which fits 170,000 convicts into jails with 100,000 beds, may get taken over by the courts as well.  Severe overcrowding, cutbacks to rehabilitation and treatment programs, and an insane parole policy which sends 2/3 of all recidivists back to jail for technical parole violations have contributed to the problem.  As has the pervasive “tough on crime” stance from the political leadership of both parties, which has yet to be contrasted with any kind of progressive message on how to fight crime smartly and safely, at lower cost and with corresponding lower incarceration and crime rates.

Here are a few stories that all happened within the past 24 hours in California, regarding these matters: (over)

1) The State Assembly, dominated by Democrats with a 50-29 majority (with one independent), voted down a bill that would have allowed courts to review cases of juveniles sentences to life without the possibility of parole.  The sponsor of the bill, LeLand Yee (D-San Francisco), noted that “No other country in the world outside of the United States allows children to be sentenced to life without parole.”  But over a dozen Assembly Democrats, either worried about close races in November or future statewide races (and the hopes of gaining support from police officers, prison guards or other interests that support the “tough on crime” status quo), either voted against the bill or walked away from the vote.  This bill would have affected a grand total of 250 inmates and gave them the opportunity to prevent being locked up from a mistake made when they were children.

2) While only 34 of an 80-seat Assembly could bother to vote to end life sentences for juveniles, the entire state Senate voted unanimously for something called “Chelsea’s Law,” another in a parade of sentencing constrictions against sex offenders.  I believe this adds the death penalty into the mix, in addition to raising sentences for all permutations of the crime.  California has already deprived sex offenders from living in homes if they ever manage to get out of prison, leading them to sleep under bridges and get lost in the system, which defeats the entire purpose of making children safer.  

This is part and parcel with 30 years of stiffer sentences coming out of the state legislature – over 1,000 sentencing laws in that time and every single one of them increased sentences.

3) LA County has a new toy, a “gift from Raytheon,” as it was put on the radio (does it come in blue?), called an Assault Intervention Device, basically a modified taser that gives the sensation of extreme heat and forces any instigator into submission.  This should be a nice experiment in efficient torture of the “pain without injury” variety, with the prisoners used as guinea pigs.  Hopefully the guards will get to see how far it can go!

4) The prison health care system has actually not fully improved under federal receivership, with prisoners still suffering from extreme medical neglect.  One woman told the story of a convict relative who was refused treatment for glaucoma for so long that his eye exploded.

Again, most of this washed over me in one 40-minute car ride.  And nobody seems to care much about it.  There’s precious little organizing on this topic from the “smart on crime” perspective, outside of the Ella Baker Center and a couple other underfunded concerns.  In my time at Calitics I probably wrote 40 posts about the prison crisis, and maybe drew a half a comment per.  I don’t know whether it’s the racial and socioeconomic composition of the blogosphere or the “out of sight, out of mind” tendency of most people, but here we have the vulnerable and the voiceless who are basically getting their Constitutional rights stripped away in some of the most unjust ways imaginable, and they need someone speaking up for them.  

Furthermore, the prison crisis connects to virtually everything that’s wrong with California.  The white flight ushered in by inner-city riots in the mid-1960s prefigured movement conservatism in places like Orange County.  Nixon was among the original law and order candidates, and that perspective gets a lot of support among the sprawl of California, regardless of party.  This sprawl, of course, breeds entitlement on the part of the suburban classes, as they want their tax dollars to go to their infrastructure to support their gas guzzlers, and not to turn around the inner cities that house “those” people.  Environmental issues, land use, water, immigration, race – all of this can be traced back to the crisis in the prisons, or at least shown as a major symptom.

It’s pathetic that every leader in this state for the last thirty years has looked to the empirical political disadvantage of standing against this human cruelty, and the advantage of steering clear of the issue.  The leadership vacuum has led to a severe loss of dignity and justice, and worse, it could lead to a systematic decline in political participation, according to a fascinating new paper.

Weaver and Lerman argue that experience with police and prisons is an important contact — indeed, perhaps the only contact — between many citizens and their government.  This contact then socializes people to have particular attitudes toward that government.  And these attitudes are far from democratic ideals […]

It shows the apparent effect of contact with the criminal justice system on whether people are registered to vote, actually vote or participate in at least one civic organization.  People are far less likely to do any of these things as their contact with police and prisons ranges from no contact to being questioned, arrested, convicted, serving time in prison or serving at least one year in prison (“serious time”).

Meanwhile, distrust in all levels of government increases as contact with the criminal justice system increases […]

Weaver and Lerman conclude:

If we take seriously the results presented here, they suggest that those with contact at every level of criminal supervision withdraw from political life – they are not in civic groups, they are less likely to express their political voice in elections, they are less involved in their communities. Thus, the carceral state carries deep implications for who is included and how they are included in the polity.

This is not a joke or something to easily dismiss.  So much flows from this mindless, Hammurabic-style cycle of vengeance that creates terrible outcomes for society.  I wish someone would have the courage to speak about it.

The $3 Million Dollar-A-Day Delay

Despite the assumed end to the prison crisis, there’s still no bill to clarify the $1.2 billion dollars in savings assumed from cuts in the July budget.  The Assembly passed a bill that fell $200 million dollars short and had almost no prison reform in it (some parole reform, but no prison reform), and the Senate has yet to take that bill up.  After word yesterday that the Senate would do so, Darrell Steinberg backed away from it, seeking to give more time to the Assembly to add more reform and more cuts into the bill.  Because the bill only requires a majority vote, it takes effect 90 days after passage.  Which means that every day with no bill costs the state $3.3 million dollars.  This is the consequence of so-called fiscal conservatives in the Yacht Party, as well as their higher-office-seeking bretheren in the Assembly Democratic caucus, wanting to look tough on crime.  As the State Worker notes, this delay is taking a daily hit on the savings gained from furloughs:

Here’s one way that furloughed state workers could look at this: The CDCR budget impasse is whittling away at savings from furloughs. If you take that $3.3 million and multiply it by the 70 days from July 1 through today, you realize the state has burned through $231 million.

A single furlough day cuts about $61 million from the state’s payroll, although not all of that savings is in the general fund. (The rounded math: $2.2 billion divided by 36 furlough days in the fiscal year.) If you narrow it down to just salaries that the administration defines as being in the general fund, one furlough day equals about $35 million. (Double check our rounded numbers: $1.3 billion divided by the 36 furlough days.)

In other words, this budget-stalemate-in-miniature has squandered the equivalent of about four furlough days for everyone or nearly seven furlough days if you look only at general fund employees.

Other states have used smart on crime policies to reduce spending without any loss in public safety.  They are taking new looks at non-violent offenders, relaxing draconian sentencing policies, targeting parole resources to those who need supervision and concurrently lowering recidivism rates through rehabilitation.  Right now, California has the exact wrong set of policies on prisons.

In fact, California is nationally known “for having the most dysfunctional sentencing and parole system” in the country, according to Stanford University professor Joan Petersilia, a criminologist who has spent years working with state officials trying to implement reforms.

“We’re too harsh and too lenient. Simultaneously,” Petersilia said.

Our mix of tough laws and fixed terms doesn’t give prison officials the flexibility to push low-risk offenders toward rehabilitation and keep dangerous criminals behind bars.

But reform efforts haven’t gained public traction because we’re too busy trying to keep people behind bars — with Jessica’s Law, Megan’s Law, the three-strikes law — to take a hard look at whether locking up more people actually makes us safer.

“The public doesn’t understand how illogical the whole system has become,” Petersilia said. “We think that somehow we’ve created something that is able to call out the most dangerous people, send them to prison and keep them in for a very long time.

“And the public is willing to pay whatever it takes to get that type of crime policy.”

I disagree with the last sentence.  The public is willing to be frightened into initiatives that do nothing for public safety and just spend money needlessly, because they’ve seen no leadership on the other side for an alternative conception of how to protect the public sensibly and best manage our cirminal justice system.  Nobody has argued in public for a more intelligent system for so long, that the public willingness to believe in its possibility has atrophied.  We can keep the lock-em-up policies or we can look to a better future.  Either way, we’re blowing $3 million a day while some Assembly Democrats go on a desperate search for their spines.

America’s Worst Legislature

Trying to appease the cowards running for higher office in the Assembly rank and file, Karen Bass has dropped the sentencing commission out of the prison reform package.

The sentencing commission was among the most controversial provisions of the Senate prison plan. But on Monday, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said “a real sentencing commission, with teeth, is my top priority” for corrections legislation.

Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Dlugosh said Monday that the Senate leader would like to see any legislation passed by the Assembly “realize the same dollar figure in savings as the Senate bill.”

The bill passed last week by the Senate, AB 14 XXX would save the state an estimated $600 million, according to an analysis of the bill. But the Assembly seemed poised to make key changes that would reduce those savings by about $220 million.

Among the other changes expected to be made by the Assembly would be the elimination of a provision that would change some crimes which can be either felonies or misdemeanors –known as “wobblers” – exclusively to misdemeanors. The Assembly bill expected to come up for a vote this week would leave the state’s wobbler law unchanged.

Assembly Democrats also balked at a provision in the Senate bill that would allow some sick and elderly inmates to finish their sentences under house arrest.

Bass said she hoped to pass the sentencing commission as stand-alone legislation later in the year.  First of all, the year ends on September 11, and second, adding the commission to a must-pass reform package was the whole point.  If lawmakers objected to it as part of a package, they’re not going to turn around and support it in isolation.

Punting on this issue will ensure that federal judges will be mandating reductions of the prison population 10 years down the road.  The only reform worth doing in the package now clarifies parole policy, devoting resources to those who need to be monitored instead of the blanket supervision that has turned our parole system into a revolving door.  But that will not be enough to turn around the prison crisis for the long-term, without finally doing something about our ever expanding sentencing law.

This also shows the complete dysfunction of the leadership.  Darrell Steinberg may not go along with the limited version, and I don’t blame him.  His chamber has now stuck their neck out three times on tough votes – Tranquillon Ridge drilling, HUTA raids and now this – that the Assembly has quashed.  I wasn’t unhappy about the first two, but if I was in the Senate, I’d be pissed about all these controversial votes I was needlessly taking.  You’d think Karen Bass would have a sense of her caucus and know that she couldn’t pass whatever she and Steinberg and the Governor hammered out in private.  Because she’s on her way out the door in 2010 she has no leverage over the caucus, because everyone’s termed out and running for something else they have no fealty to the Assembly, and because they all live perpetually in fear they won’t take a vote they know would help future generations deal with a crisis.

As I’ve said, a broken process will almost always produce a broken result.  But individual lawmakers need to be called out.  Particularly the three Assemblymembers running for Attorney General who think they’re showing off their toughness.  When all of them lose, they’ll probably attribute it to other factors.  They should be reminded of this day.

Living 21 Years In The Past

The SacBee reports that Tough On Crime types are trotting out the same symbols that Lee Atwater used in 1988 to sink a Democratic Presidential candidate.

Willie Horton’s shadow haunts the Capitol as lawmakers wrestle with how to cut $1.2 billion from state prisons without endangering public safety.

More than two decades after Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush used televised ads of murderer Horton to paint presidential opponent Michael Dukakis as soft on crime, state GOP lawmakers are slapping Democrats with a similar charge over proposed prison cuts.

The politically explosive issue, coupled with opposition from some law enforcement groups, is making many Democrats jittery – especially those with aspirations for higher office.

I’m hearing that a lot of this nonsense is being pushed by astroturf front groups for the prison guard’s union.  And considering that Horton was the kind of violent offender who would be exempted from any changes in the law under the plan on offer, it’s simply baseless.  But this may be more about getting prison guard money and law enforcement support in future elections.  But it has the effect of legitimizing the kind of nonsense that has destroyed our prison system, given us the highest recidivism rate in the nation, put the prison health care system in the hands of a federal receiver due to Constitutional violations, and drawn a demand from federal judges to reduce the population by 44,000.

And it’s working, of course.

Bass proposes to eliminate a provision in the Senate-passed plan that has attracted the most intense opposition.

Known as “alternative custody,” the controversial proposal would allow the release of up to 6,300 low-level, nonviolent inmates who are elderly, medically infirm, or have less than a year remaining on their sentences.

Inmates released under the plan would be subject to electronic monitoring under “house arrest,” which could include placement in a residence, local program, hospital or treatment center.

Because blind people with one leg are dangers to society, and we should spend more money warehousing them than we do on the average higher education student.  Makes perfect sense.  Not to mention the fact that the judges will probably release these same offenders anyway, as part of the federal mandate.

The real fear is that the Assembly will water down the sentencing commission so that lawmakers will have to affirmatively pass their recommendations into law instead of having to pass legislation to prevent those recommendations from being enacted.  Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, running for Attorney General, basically says in the piece that he wants such a change.  It’s a subtle but important difference; essentially the recommendations will be easier to kill under the weakened standard.  And so we continue the endless Tough On Crime march that has put us into a ditch.

Meanwhile, as John Myers notes, intransigence on sensible prison reform will simply increase the eventual budget deficit:

Then there’s the never-ending state budget blues. The original prison plan, when added to February’s budget cuts and gubernatorial plans to reduce prison spending, was a $1.2 billion part of the deficit solution written into law; the original bill, alone, was estimated to save as much as $600 million. But that was with those alternatives to prison cell custody and fewer crimes resulting in felony one-way tickets to the joint. The ‘Plan B’ version, say staffers, may come up as much as $200 million short (and that’s assuming all of the original savings estimated were valid).

In some years, a $200 million gap in the California state budget may not be the end of the world. But this is no ordinary year; cuts a fraction of that size are forcing all kinds of shutdowns of state services. And if this plan becomes the new way to go on prisons, it’s going to leave a lot of budget watchers — and Californians — wondering what happens next.

Democrats are wrong if they think they can finesse the right into taking the charge that they are “coddling murderers” off the table.  Just look at eMeg, claiming that a sentencing commission would reverse three strikes, about as factual a charge as Sarah Palin’s “death panels.”  They’ll always be smeared, so they might as well do the right thing for once.

Don’t Expect A Broken Government To Yield An Unbroken Result

So the modest prison reform deal between legislative leaders and the Governor stalled out in the Assembly last night, and the chamber adjourned for the weekend.  Not enough Democrats could be convinced to support the deal, particularly the ones with designs on statewide office or in perceived swing districts.

Let’s explain right away what this says about the broken legislative process in Sacramento.  It’s infuriating that the bill was rushed to the floor without the votes on the Assembly side and without any kind of education campaign to explain the stakes to the public.  Federal judges will release 44,000 prisoners.  We can either do it smartly or stupidly.  There is no other choice.

We knew that $1.2 billion in prison budget cuts had to be allocated for a month.  This plan was, in fact, pretty much in place for a month.  Did anyone in leadership say a word about it?  Did they whip their caucus?  Did they explain that without this, a federal judge will use a potentially haphazard process to release prisoners without any reforms, and even if the legislature tries to shift the blame, THEY WILL BE BLAMED ANYWAY because citizens habitually view the legislature as the source of most of the state’s troubles?

Instead, the debate gets ruled by Yacht Party misinformation:

Sen. John Benoit, R-Palm Desert, spoke in favor of shutting down some juvenile jails instead of freeing inmates since the population of younger offenders has dropped. “It’s a shame we’re doing this in such a hurry,” he said.

And Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel, spoke out for cutting rehabilitation money rather than letting prisoners out. “The immediate safety of the public must take precedence,” she said.

Not only does it do that (overcrowding has led to the lack of space for rehabilitation and treatment programs and the nation’s highest recidivism rate, which leads to additional needless crime), but the package put together by the legislature WOULD do that.  Schwarzenegger’s line-item reductions as part of this deal would cut $180 million in rehab and treatment programs, which is completely insane.  That said, the sentencing commission that would come to fruition in this bill is quite important, and those Democrats in the Assembly holding it up are rank cowards who don’t have no belief in the value of their own ideas.  Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod does:

Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod said, “Do you all live in a parallel world?” She said federal authorities that have found California prisons too overcrowded are going to use their power to release prisoners and that it would be preferable for the state to have control over that process.

“I trump each and everyone of you with children and grandchildren. And you know what? I’m not scared,” she said, referring to several GOP senators’ references to how they feared for their children’s safety.

Still, in the end this is a process problem.  The backroom dealmaking made by legislative leaders who have no sway over their caucuses leads to embarrassing results like this.  The power of special interests leads to calculations that changes must be made in the dead of night, and the power of money in politics means that fear can rule over hope.  Individual cowardly lawmakers in thrall to Tough On Crime thinking led us down this road, but a broken government certainly keeps us there.  And it’s not, as this shows, just about 2/3.

…I’m hearing that “Crime Victims United,” a front group for the prison guard’s union which has never received one donation from anyone else, claimed sex offenders would get early release despite being exempted specifically in the bill.  They out and out lied, and would have done so in ads in lawmakers’ districts.  Crime Victims United should be investigated by the FPPC and disbanded.  They’re an astroturf group using fear and falsehoods to shield a protected class from having to give back their largesse from the state treasury.  Ultimately, this is about cowardice on the part of lawmakers, but the influence of money plays a big role.

Prison Vote Tomorrow Includes Sentencing Commission

More details have emerged about the prison reform legislation both houses of the Legislature will take up tomorrow, and according to multiple sources, it will include a sentencing commission, a major victory for reformers if it passes.

Legislative Democrats will push a commission to create a new system for prison sentences as part of Democrats’ prison overhaul plan, which will be voted on the floor of both houses Thursday.

The commission, which has been pushed for by liberal Democrats for years, has been a major rift between Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in recent years. But changes made this week over who controls the commission seem to have the governor’s OK […]

Under a draft proposal circulating in the Capitol Wednesday, the new commission would be called the California Public Safety Commission. The panel would consist of 13 members, including the corrections secretary, chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the state public defender. The governor would make eight appointments to the board. The chief justice would make the other two appointments, both of whom must be retired judges.

The bill calls for the commission to present a new set of parole and sentencing rules to the Legislature by June 1, 2012.

I don’t really like the Governor controlling 8 of the 13 appointments, just for balance-of-power reasons.  But if that’s the price of support, and if it truly will make recommendations based on the law and the data, I can live with it.  And remember, the commission wouldn’t produce findings until June 2012.  In the interim we will have a new Governor who could make alternative commission recommendations.  

Most important, having an independent commission whose rules would have the force of law unless repealed by the legislature (a much more lasting solution than if they have to positively endorse them with a vote) does really change the game around sentencing in California.  It may not work perfectly, but it could really make a difference, and the alternative is the legislature adding one sentencing increase after another as they have done for the last 30 years, and a prison system collapsing under its own weight, as the Governor said today.

Now, I don’t agree with all the aspects of prison reform as laid out by the Governor and the Legislature (here’s the bill).  I think reducing funding for rehabilitation, educational and vocational training programs by $175 million, as called for in the part of the legislation the Governor will enact by line-item appropriation, is insane and completely counter-productive.  And I don’t see how lowering reimbursement rates for doctors and nurses operating in the prisons, at a time when prison health care is in the hands of a federal receiver, is even legal.  But the sentencing commission is crucial enough, and some of the other reforms similarly salutary (like ending blanket parole supervision and concentrating on those with the most serious offenses, or increasing early release credits for those who meet rehabilitation milestones), that I have to accept at least what the Legislature is doing, if not the Governor (most of the bad stuff are in his line items).

The Legislature and Governor are splitting the work here to make the $524 million in cuts more palatable to potential “tough on crime” lawmakers wary of the vote.  Greg Lucas thinks that Democrats may not have the votes in the Assembly.

There are 50 Democrats in the lower house. A bill reducing prison spending requires 41 votes. That allows Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat, to give “passes” to nine of her members.

Certainly four Democrats Bass would allow not to vote on the bill are those targeted for defeat in 2010 by Republicans – the incumbents of Assembly Districts, 10, 15, 78 and 80.

They are, respectively: Alyson Huber of El Dorado Hills, Joan Buchanan of Alamo, Marty Block of San Diego and Mannie Perez of Coachella.

Certainly the three Assembly members running for Attorney General would want to be spared from having to vote for the bill. The Attorney General is commonly perceived as being California’s “Top Cop.”

They are: Ted Lieu of Torrance, Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara and Alberto Torrico of Fremont.

In June, Fresno Assemblyman Juan Arambula, a moderate Democrat, re-registered as an independent. In July, he voted with his former Democratic colleagues to close an estimated $24 billion hole in the budget. But whether that willingness extends to prison cuts that will release more parolees into his Central Valley district is uncertain.

Among other Democrats, casting a perceived “anti-public safety” vote would not be a popular in the districts of Cathleen Galgiani of Tracy and Anna Caballero of Salinas.

The governor holds little or no sway with Assembly Republicans so the odds are against him convincing any GOP lawmakers to vote for the bill. That leaves Speaker Bass with a math problem.

We MUST get enough of these Assemblymembers to vote for any bill with a sentencing commission.  Gloria Romero’s sentencing commission bill in 2007, which was better, died in the Assembly, with help from many of these people.  If Karen Bass can knuckle down on her caucus to vote for disastrous cuts to the social safety net, she can find enough to pass the widest-reaching reform package in prisons in 30 years.  If you’re in the districts of any of these lawmakers, contact them NOW and tell them to vote Yes on ABX3 14.

Alyson Huber (AD-10) (Calitics raised a fair bit of money for her)

Joan Buchanan (AD-15) (Does she want to win a liberal primary for Congress?)

Marty Block (AD-78)

Manuel Perez (AD-80) (Calitics raised a fair bit of money for him)

Ted Lieu (AD-53)

Pedro Nava (AD-35)

Alberto Torrico (AD-20)

Cathleen Galgiani (AD-17)

Anna Caballero (AD-28)

They don’t have to give in to the Tough on Crime mentality which has destroyed our prison system.  They can look toward a better future, with sensible policy that saves money and makes Californians safer.

Steinberg, Democrats Say They Have The Votes For Modest Prison Reform

The short-term fights are starting to be VERY short-term.  Following up on an earlier item, Democrats in the legislature plan to hold a vote on prison reform as early as Thursday, that would clarify $1.2 billion dollars in cuts.  And they don’t need any Republican votes to do it.

Over objections from Republican lawmakers, the Legislature plans to take up a majority-vote prison package Thursday that is designed to reduce the state’s inmate population by 27,300 and is backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The overall package would save $1.2 billion in part by reducing certain property crimes to misdemeanors, placing low-level parolees on global positioning system monitoring and sending older, infirm prisoners to house arrest or medical facilities to serve the final 12 months of their sentences.

The initial plan included an independent sentencing commission that could report back on changes to the runaway sentencing laws at the heart of the prison crisis.  I don’t see that mentioned in this article, or anywhere else.  Hopefully that remains part of the solution.  And like the rest, lawmakers can enact it on a majority-vote basis (which means that the solutions wouldn’t take effect for 90 days).  Darrell Steinberg reiterated his support today.

“I’m confident we’ll have the votes,” said Steinberg, who will caucus with Democrats tomorrow

Steinberg said the Senate would vote on the governor’s plan, but with slight modifications to clarify which elderly and infirm inmates could be eligible for alternative custody and release.

“The intent has never been to carte blanche release any inmates, elderly, infirm inmates,” he said. “It never has been, but there has been some concern expressed, so we want to make sure that there are very tight criteria that would even allow for the possibility of allowing elderly and infirm inmates to be released.”

I prefer the People’s Budget Fix, which would stop putting nonviolent drug offenders in overcrowded prisons, focus on reducing recidivism through rehabilitation and treatment, institute risk-based parole supervision rather than blanket supervision that inevitably raises the rates of recidivism (often on technical violations of parole), and address the most ineffective areas of the criminal justice system – the burdensome, brutal three strikes law, and the death penalty.  The People’s Budget Fix coalition held a rally today.  You can hear Leland Yee speaking about it here and here.

And I hope they keep fighting.  I hope we have a sane criminal justice policy caucus in the legislature as a counterweight to the tough on crime troglodytes.  But while the Democratic/Schwarzenegger package isn’t perfect, but it’s the first step in the right direction in 30 years.  Particularly if the sentencing commission is included in the package, it will be historic and very important.  We will finally end the long march of building more prisons and warehousing inmates without giving them the tools to actually rehabilitate themselves and become productive members of society, and toward a future where we spend less, create more productive citizens and actually make our state safer.

The Stakes Of The Upcoming Prison Policy Fight

At the Netroots Nation panel (and a quick thanks to everyone who attended, and the panelists, and Dan Walters for noticing), I identified two short-term fights that are worth engaging.  One consists of playing defense – stopping the Parsky Commission from instituting a Latvia-ization of California through eliminating business taxes and flattening the income tax.  The other short-term fight concerns the $1.2 billion dollars in cuts to the prison budget, identified in the July budget agreement but not clarified on the specifics until the Legislature returns to work this week.  We are starting to see some organizing around that, with human rights and civil liberties leaders massing on the Capitol Steps today to promote sound prison reform instead of just lopping off all rehabilitation and treatment programs for the overcrowded corrections system and calling it a day.  Leland Yee, Nancy Skinner, Jim Beall and Tom Ammiano, who just replaced indie Juan Arambula as chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, will speak.  So we have a sympathetic ear on one of the key committees.

About a week back, Laura Sullivan produced an NPR report describing the devolution of the corrections system in California, using Johnny Cash’s historic concert at Folsom Prison as a launching pad:

The morning that Cash played may have been the high-water mark for Folsom – and for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The men in the cafeteria lived alone in their own prison cells. Almost every one of them was in school or learning a professional trade. The cost of housing them barely registered on the state budget. And when these men walked out of Folsom free, the majority of them never returned to prison.

It was a record no other state could match.

Things have changed. California’s prisons are all in a state of crisis. And nowhere is this more visible than at Folsom today.

Folsom was built to hold 1,800 inmates. It now houses 4,427.

It’s once-vaunted education and work programs have been cut to just a few classes, with waiting lists more than 1,000 inmates long.

Officers are on furlough. Its medical facility is under federal receivership. And like every other prison in the state, 75 percent of the inmates who are released from Folsom today will be back behind bars within three years.

In addition to having a solid education, transportation and medical system in the early post-war period, California’s prisons were once the envy of the nation, too.  Then the Tough On Crime crowd got a hold of the levers of power, produced 1,000 laws expanding sentences over 30 years, pushed the public to do the same through ballot initiatives, increased parole sanctions, and the system just got swamped.  In the early 1980s we had 20,000 prisoners.  Now it’s 170,000.  The overcrowding decimates rehabilitation, sends nonviolent offenders into what amounts to a college for violent crime, violates prisoner rights by denying proper medical care, and increases costs at every point along the way.  Sullivan argues that much of this goes back to the prison guard’s union.

In three decades, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. The union has contributed millions of dollars to support “three strikes” and other laws that lengthen sentences and increase parole sanctions. It donated $1 million to Wilson after he backed the three strikes law.

And the result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.

Sullivan uncovered a front group PAC called Crime Victims United of California that has received every one of their donations from the CCPOA.  By seeding “victim’s rights” groups and enabling more stringent sentencing laws, the CCPOA mainly benefits from the overtime needed for their officers to properly house 170,000 prisoners in cells designed for 100,000.  70% of the prison budget pays salaries.  5% goes to education and vocational programs.  And that’s the part of the budget being cut.

It only costs her about $100,000 to run these programs – not even a blip in a $10 billion-a-year prison budget. But, says Bracy, the programs are always the first to go. Sometimes she almost feels like giving up.

“It’s just not cost-effective to throw men and women in prison and then do nothing with them,” she said. “And shame on us for thinking that’s safety. It’s not public safety. You lock them up and do nothing with them. They go out not even equal to what they came in but worse.”

The numbers bear that out, with 90,000 inmates returning to California’s prisons every year.

But compare that to the Braille program here at Folsom. Inmates are learning to translate books for the blind. In 20 years, not a single inmate who has been part of the program has ever returned to prison. This year, the program has been cut back to 19 inmates.

Meanwhile, the Schwarzenegger Administration is about to use federal money to increase funding for anti-drug units, which will actually send more nonviolent drug offenders to prison at a time when federal judges have mandated the reduction of the population by 44,000.

This is insanity.  But members of the political class, for the most part, still want to be seen as daddy protectors, and will gladly institute the exact same failed policies that have thrown the system into crisis.

We have a moment here, with $1.2 billion in mandated cuts, to create legitimate policies that can both cut costs and reduce the prison population while actually making the state safer.  The recent Chino prison riot has led editorialists to come out for sensible prison policies, understanding the connection between stuffing hundreds of thousands of people into modified public storage units and the potential for unrest.

Jean Ross argued on our panel that lawmakers will probably pass the buck and let the judicial branch take the heat for any individual consequences to early release.  That would be a mistake, particularly if in the process, they jettison the founding of an independent sentencing commission that would finally address the runaway sentencing laws at the heart of the crisis.  The clock is ticking on whether we will have any leadership on this issue, as a report is demanded by the federal judges in mid-September.  This is an organizing opportunity, a chance to show an ossified political class that we care about more than just being Tough On Crime.

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

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.

Federal Judges Order California To Reduce Prison Population By 44,000

A ruling by the three-judge panel who have effectively taken control of the California prison system has ordered the state to reduce the prison population by as much as 40,000 44,000 inmates within the next two years, finding the system in violation of Constitutional mandates.  The Tough On Crime balloon has just popped.

The judges said that reducing prison crowding in California was the only way to change what they called an unconstitutional prison health care system that causes one unnecessary death a week. In a scathing 184-page order, the judges criticized state officials, saying they had failed to comply with previous orders to fix the health care system in the prisons and reduce crowding, and recommended remedies, including reform of the parole system.

The special three-judge panel also described a chaotic prison system where prisoners were stacked in triple bunk beds in gymnasiums, hallways and day rooms; where single guards were often forced to monitor scores of inmates at a time; and where ill inmates died for lack of treatment.

“In these overcrowded conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent, infectious diseases spread more easily, and lockdowns are sometimes the only means by which to maintain control,” the panel wrote. “In short, California’s prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage.”

This started as a series of lawsuits claiming that the overcrowded prisons violated inmates’ Constitutional right to medical care through the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment while under confinement.  The judges concluded that massive reductions were the only way to get the balance right and restore Constitutional order to the process.

It’s nothing less than an epic failure at all levels of leadership over the last thirty years which has brought us to the point where judges must mandate reductions in the prisons.  A state that is unable to manage its finances can also clearly not manage its plainly illegal corrections system.

This now hangs over the head of lawmakers as they come back from recess in August and determine how to achieve $1.2 billion dollars in savings to the prison system.  The Governor and Democrats in the legislature have proscribed various reform programs that would reduce the prison population, change mandatory prison sentences for technical parole violation, and create an independent sentencing commission to look at reforming our draconian sentencing policies.  Many of these reforms are desperately needed, would save money for the state and also comprise a smarter, more sensible way to deal with prisons that actually makes Californians safer.  Today’s ruling makes this not only a good set of ideas, but a mandatory set, given that the state is now under court order to reduce the population.

The Governor’s Prisons Secretary Matthew Cate is not ruling out appealing the ruling to the US Supreme Court.  He also claims that the state has a plan to reduce overcrowding that would lower the number of prisoners by 35,000 in two years.  That’s less than required by the ruling.  But this is no longer an option; unless they appeal, and it’s no guarantee they can, the state must submit a plan to meet the judges’ dictates within 45 days.  End of story.