Tag Archives: Gloria Romero

Prison Policy No Longer Invisible

This was surprising to me: grassroots action last week protesting the Governor’s prison policy.

Busloads of protesters fighting the construction of new penitentiaries swarmed the Capitol on Wednesday, while inside the statehouse, the simmering politics surrounding the prison overcrowding crisis boiled into full view.

The protesters attacked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to build 78,000 new prison and jail beds, saying that $11 billion worth of “bricks and mortar and debt” are no substitute for true reform.

Instead, the demonstrators – some dressed in orange prison jumpsuits and standing in makeshift cells – said lawmakers could quickly thin the inmate population by releasing geriatric and incapacitated convicts and by sanctioning thousands of parole violators in their communities rather than in state lockups.

I would add revising sentencing guidelines through a newly-created independent commission, but just the presence of these protesters at all suggests that this issue will not be as invisible as it has been in previous years.  Which makes sense, as we’re two months from a court-imposed deadline to do something about overcrowding.


And good for Gloria Romero for stepping out on something that will win her no friends in the voting public, but is simply the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, political fireworks were flying over a decision by Senate Democrats to place a moratorium on bills that would lengthen criminal sentences and thereby exacerbate prison crowding.

The maneuver infuriated Republicans, but Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said it could not be “a business-as-usual year” in Sacramento given the overcrowding emergency.

“The Legislature bears a share of the responsibility for the crisis, and we must accept that,” Romero said. “We can’t keep having bills fly out of committee like pancakes just because we want to appear tough on crime.”

There have been over 1,000 such bills in the last 30 years.  They look good on glossy mailers and they can easily be used as a club to damage opponents.  But they have a major indirect impact on our quality of life.

And this mass incarceration is a symptom as well, a function of increasing inequality in the Bush years.  As the chasm between haves and have-nots grows, desperation leads to increased crime.  And then the imprisonment itself keeps the snowball rolling down the hill:

Imprisonment does more than reflect the divides of race and class. It deepens those divides-walling off the disadvantaged, especially unskilled black men, from the promise of American life. While violent criminals belong in jail, more than half of state and federal inmates are in for nonviolent crimes, especially selling drugs. Their long sentences deprive women of potential husbands, children of fathers, and convicts of a later chance at a decent job. Similar arguments have been made before, but Western, a Princeton sociologist, makes a quantitative case. Along the way, his revisionist account of the late 1990s detracts from its reputation as an era of good news for the poor…

The 1990s were said to be a time when rising tides finally did lift all boats. Western warns that part of the reason, statistically speaking, is that many poor men have been thrown overboard-the government omits prisoners when calculating unemployment and poverty rates. Add them in, as Western does, and joblessness swells. For young black men it grows by more than a third. For young black dropouts, the jobless rate leaps from 41 percent to 65 percent. “Only by counting the penal population do we see that fully two out of three young black male dropouts were not working at the height of the 1990s economic expansion,” Western warns. Count inmates and you also erase three quarters of the apparent progress in closing the wage gap between blacks and whites.

The increased recidivism rate and the drive to incarcerate more and more for longer and longer walls off opportunity to families on the wrong side of the race and class divide.  Prison policy is job policy, poverty policy, family policy, education policy, and so on.  It took a massive crisis to get anyone to focus on it, but I hope that in the future, we can understand it in these terms.

Real Sentencing Reform

I have been talking about sentencing reform for a long time now, and until recently it was a dirty word in Sacramento.  That has seemingly changed, as Schwarzenegger has seemingly accepted that there must be some sentencing reform.  However, his plan for a sentencing comission was to create a panel that would recommend good public policy, and then the elected officials would ignore it.  Not so the Dems:

Democrats in the state Senate filled in the blanks Wednesday on their version of a sentencing commission by proposing a panel with the power to set prison terms that could be amended only by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

The Senate Democrats’ take on a sentencing commission differs markedly from the one offered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his 2007-08 budget. Rather than adjusting the length of terms, the Republican governor’s commission would only make recommendations on sentencing policy and devote its first year of research to the state’s much-criticized parole system. (SacBee 3/15/07)

But don’t worry, Todd Spitzer is still holding it down for letting elected officials rule sentencing rather than a panel that would take into account actual public policy concerns.

“There’s not one Republican, and I would be surprised if there were many Democrats who are not soft on crime who would vote for that bill,” Spitzer said.

So, let’s get this straight, 17 states that have these comissions? Soft on crime? Federal judges who are about to open the doors of our decrepit and overstuffed state prisons? Soft on Crime.  That’s all they can say, “Soft On Crime.”  They have no real solutions to the questions involved in the prison crisis, so they just get up on their “Tough On Crime” high horse and galavant around town.  What has “Tough on Crime” given us? Overstuffed prisons, a ballooning prison budget, and a 70% recidivism rate.  Oh, and we will soon approach 1% of all Californians in prison.

Tough on Crime is a ridiculous notion, and it’s time to start challenging Spitzer and the other hooligans on the right to actually explain themselves.  Just saying Tough on Crime isn’t enough.

Taking a Stand on Prison Sentencing

We always like to talk about how a strong Democratic Party needs to be unwavering on specific issues to let the electorate understand the core concerns of the party and attract people to the brand.  This is no less true in California, where the Democratic brand is somewhat invisible (better than the Republican brand, which is shot).  This is a bold move on sentencing guidelines, and those who are supporting it are probably going to catch hell from the law-n-order crowd, but it’s important to plant the flag for sane sentencing so that we don’t turn massive percentages of the state into an unmanageable prison population.

Launching what promises to be one of the year’s fiercest debates in the Capitol, the Senate’s top Democrats on Thursday moved toward reforming California’s byzantine criminal sentencing system.

Unveiling legislation to create a sentencing review commission, Senate leader Don Perata of Oakland and Sen. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles said California should join 16 other states now revisiting the question of who goes to prison and for how long.

The lawmakers also urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to use his executive powers to create an interim working group that would begin collecting and analyzing sentencing data as early as February.

“We can’t wait,” Romero said, noting that prison overcrowding is so severe that federal judges may impose a cap on the inmate population, now at 172,000. “Public safety is not served with a broken corrections system.”


Schwarzenegger has already proposed a sentencing commission, but asked them to spend their first year looking at parole guidelines, which would have no effect on the prison population in a time of crisis.  He’s constrained by a base that already hates him, who would view loosening sentencing restrictions as a final betrayal.  Democrats have little to gain from this proposal other than moving the state forward.  Surely it plays into the ridiculous stereotype conservatives hold of liberals as coddlers of criminals.  But the fact remains that the present system is incredibly dangerous, and Democrats in the legislature are being the grownups here by trying to do something about it.  Not just TALKING about it, like the Governor, but taking it out of the realm of politics and into a solutions-based environment.  There’s a rapidly approaching deadline where a federal judge will start capping the number of people in prison.  If something bold like this isn’t done, you’re going to see inmates let out of prisons in droves, and that STILL won’t solve the long-term structural problem.  Republicans want to live in this fantasy world where they can one-up each other on being “tough on crime” as if there are no real-world consequences.

In California, many experts have urged an overhaul of the sentencing system, calling it chaotic, unwieldy and complex. The nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission, which is poised to release a report on sentencing reform, found that California has added more than 1,000 laws and sentence enhancements – lengthening prison terms – over the last 30 years. Most of the changes were made by the Legislature, though some came through ballot initiatives such as the three-strikes measure of 1994.

Some critics say the state’s fixed-term sentencing system should be altered because it compels the release of inmates regardless of whether they are rehabilitated. Under such a system, there is no incentive for felons to change their lives, some scholars say.

Other experts say the biggest problem in California is a lack of uniformity, with felons convicted of the same crime receiving different sentences in different counties.

“The system we have now is a hodgepodge, and we need independent experts to help us put some sense into it,” Perata said. “Whether the Legislature has the political will to do that is another question. I’m skeptical.”

The reductio ad absurdum of this “tough on crime” pose is this shocking report from CPR about forced sterilization (you heard me right) in the prisons:

Given California’s shameful history with the forced sterilizations of thousands of people during the 20th century, you would think that bureaucrats would think twice before suggesting that the sterilization of an imprisoned woman could ever be freely chosen. And you would be wrong.

“Doing what is medically necessary” is how the Gender Responsiveness Strategies Commission of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation termed its July 18 recommendation to consider providing, in the course of delivering a baby, “elective” sterilization of women who give birth in prison, “either post-partum or coinciding with cesarean section.”

To describe a sterilization performed under such circumstances as voluntary is absurd. One’s ability to consent to sterilization, or anything else, during pregnancy and labor is limited in any setting, not to mention in a coercive environment such as a prison. Moreover, Robert Sillen, whom U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson appointed last year as federal receiver over California’ s prison health-care system, has documented that a person dies each day in California prisons due to gross medical neglect. How, in such an environment, could we trust prison staff to ensure informed consent to such a procedure?

It’s absolutely revolting, and it’s what you get when you have this dehumanization of criminals, a lack of emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, and a political environment where conservative frames on law enforcement are the only ones accepted as “serious.”

As this crisis reaches a point of no return, it’s not enough to just talk about blurring the lines on partisanship.  You have to take a stand to do something about it.  I have not been thrilled with the legislature’s performance out of the gate on health care (save for the great Sheila Kuehl).  Their response to this crisis has been solid, however, and taking stands like this will eventually resonate with the public as long as they’re able to get out the message.  I don’t think the state’s citizens are as conservative as law enforcement policy suggests.  It’s time to take back this issue, and call for sanity, call for determining consequences before action, and call for lifting up those who transgress, rather than trying to lock the problem away.