Tag Archives: criminal justice

Sen. Leno looks to reduce jail time for simple drug possession

At the parade 23/52Looks to reduce costs, make safer communities

by Brian Leubitz

San Francisco has a strong record of trying to work to prioritize rehabilitation over retribution when it comes to sentencing. Sheriff Mike Hennessey, the current and prior DA, as well as a number of other elected leaders have tried to prioritize making our community safer. Sen. Leno also has a track record in the Legislature to prove that.

Senator Mark Leno has introduced new legislation that reforms California’s drug sentencing laws for simple possession. SB 649 allows counties to significantly reduce incarceration costs by giving prosecutors the flexibility to charge low-level, non-violent drug offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The bill also gives judges discretion to deem a non-violent drug possession offense to be either a misdemeanor or felony after consideration of the offense and the defendant’s record. SB 649, which does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale, will help alleviate overcrowding in county jails, ease pressure on California’s court system and result in millions of dollars in annual savings for local governments.

“If we want safer communities, our collective goal for low-level drug offenders should be helping to ensure that they get the rehabilitation they need to successfully reenter their communities,” said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. “Instead, we sentence them to long terms, offer them no treatment while incarcerated and release them back into our communities with few job prospects.  This proposal gives prosecutors the option to reduce penalties so counties can reinvest in proven alternatives that would benefit minor offenders and save limited jail space for serious criminals.”

In addition to providing greater opportunity for post-release success, Sen. Leno hopes to also use the opportunity to reduce spending on jails and prisons. The LAO has estimated that reducing jail time for simple drug possession offenses could save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years. If the rehabilitation services are provided smoothly, this has the potential of being a win-win for the state.

However, given the history of this kind of legislation in the past, look for strong resistance as the bill proceeds through the Legislature.

Life Without a Chance

By Tanya Greene, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU

We as a nation need to stop throwing away our children. Kids are still maturing and developing — as I like to say, they are not done yet. As a result, society treats kids and adults differently in a wide array of contexts: kids cannot drive, sit on juries, enter contracts, join the military, smoke, drink, marry or hold political office. Yet we lock them up and literally throw away the key. Making matters worse, we condemn black youth forever at 18 times the rate of white youth and Latino youth at five times the rate of whites.

Young people need to be held accountable for their criminal actions in a way that allows them to grow and develop into successful adults. California’s Senate Bill 9 would improve the law to reflect kids’ capacity for rehabilitation, plus it protects public safety and is fiscally sound. S.B. 9 would allow youth who were sentenced to life in prison without parole for an offense committed while they were under 18 an opportunity to show remorse, rehabilitation and redemption. Under this new law, youth could petition the court for review of their sentence after serving 10 to 25 years first, with no guarantee that a lesser sentence would be imposed. There would also be no guarantee of parole, simply a hope of it where there is now none. Isn’t this the least we could do for our future generation?

Right now, there are over 2,500 individuals in prison for the rest of their entire lives because of behavior they engaged in as children, including almost 300 in California. We sentence children as young as 13 and 14 to die in prison; we consider charging 5-year-olds with murder. No other country in the world does this to its young people.

Consider Anthony C., Michael A., Sara K. Aren’t our most fragile, vulnerable community members owed a second chance? Cyntoia Brown is but one of our inmate children. Shouldn’t we consider the circumstances of her life of forced prostitution that played into the murder of her pimp at age 16?

Last year, the United States Supreme Court agreed that children convicted of non-homicide crimes were too young to warrant absolute hopelessness. Fourteen states already recognize that children should not be sentenced to life in a box, or just don’t do it. California is poised now add another law to the list in recognizing that no child, regardless of his crime, should be forsaken.

We have to take responsibility and own how we raise our kids — and how we punish them.

Lawmakers in California passed S.B. 9 out of the appropriations committee this week and the entire legislature may vote on it as soon as next week. If you live in California, take action today. Contact your assembly member and urge him or her to support S.B. 9.

Knee-Jerk Responses vs. Smarter Safety Policies

Last September, the San Francisco Police Department – under the command of former chief George Gascón – submitted a proposal responding to the uptick in violence outside a handful of San Francisco nightclubs.

The proposal was supposed to be heard this week by the city’s Entertainment Commission, but Mayor Ed Lee appropriately delayed the hearing for more debate.

The violence outside of nightclubs is a serious problem that must be addressed in a thoughtful way. But the SFPD’s flawed proposal is a knee-jerk response that will not make us safer and will violate our privacy rights. We need to understand why a city as progressive on policy as San Francisco is being offered flawed political solutions to serious public safety challenges.

A Plan Likely to Backfire

The SFPD proposal mandates venues to swipe patrons’ identification cards and keep this personal information on record for subsequent police review and to place metal detectors at some venues with occupancy levels exceeding 100, among other requirements.

This proposal is extremely problematic on a number of levels – the first of which is that it will likely backfire. Most nightclub violence takes place outside, not inside the clubs. Creating bottlenecks and barriers to entry will have the effect of keeping more trouble outside. And creating an environment so unwelcoming that many law-abiding people will stay home or go to other cities, while some potential troublemakers will simply go to unregulated clubs, could make our streets more dangerous at night.

The police proposal has been rightly criticized by the California Music and Culture Association (CMAC), which is proposing more sensible reforms. The SFPD proposal has also come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has weighed in on very real First Amendment and privacy concerns. Choices of art and music venues often reflect private political and personal preferences; requiring that venues store patrons’ identification information thus raises serious constitutional issues.

As the father of two young daughters, I don’t make it out to clubs as much as I used to. But I know what a vital role nighttime venues play in our culture, our identity and our economy.

We don’t want to put responsible club owners out of business with costly proposals that do not improve public safety. Instead, we should be working collaboratively with these responsible owners on real solutions, such as enhanced training of security personnel, improved lighting and better coordination with the SFPD. I also believe we should look more closely at the licensing status of clubs where crime patterns emerge – and be more aggressive about revoking the permits of those operators who don’t provide a safe environment for their patrons and neighbors.

These are practical steps that would make us safer by targeting the problem clubs, not every venue, and they are steps that would not violate the First Amendment and privacy rights of people who patronize San Francisco’s clubs.

A Political Proposal

But instead of practical solutions, the nightclub plan exemplifies the reactive “do something – do anything” mentality that so often creates “safety” policies that actually make us less safe. If it is adopted in anything like its current form, it will be yet another example of knee-jerk responses beating out thoughtful policies.

Our police chief at the time – George Gascón – was under pressure to “do something.” But instead of a reasoned and collaborative solution, what was proposed was simply more politics. The public and the politicians demanded action – so the police proposed action even though their proposals would not make us safer, would violate our constitutional rights and would be tied up in the courts for years.

The best tool to create a safer community is not to violate the privacy rights of San Franciscans who contribute to our culture and economy by patronizing our clubs, but to enlist club owners and the broader community to work collaboratively with law enforcement to support a safer environment around the clubs.

We need to reduce the violence outside of nightclubs. But let’s do so with thoughtful policies – not knee-jerk, political responses.

David Onek is a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, host of the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast and a former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission.

It’s Time to Reform Three Strikes

California voters overwhelmingly passed the Three Strikes initiative in 1994 based on the promise that it would take repeat violent offenders off the streets.

But now, more than fifteen years after the initiative’s passage, we have the benefit of facts to help us understand the true impact of Three Strikes.

Most Californians already know that in the wake of Three Strikes the cost of corrections has soared. Our state prison budget is now so high that California spends as much on prisons as we do on higher education.

But many Californians are surprised to learn that, under Three Strikes, Curtis Wilkerson of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for petty theft of a pair of socks; that Shane Taylor of Tulare was sentenced to life for simple possession of 0.1 gram of methamphetamine; or that Greg Taylor of Los Angeles was sentenced to life for attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat.

In fact, the majority of those put away for life under Three Strikes – over 4,000 people total – committed a minor, non-violent third strike. These non-violent third strikers will, according to the California state auditor, cost the state at least $4.8 billion over the next 25 years – almost $200 million per year.

The people named above have an advantage that the vast majority of three strikers do not — they are all clients of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic. Under the direction of Project co-founder Michael Romano, Stanford law students have helped get a dozen non-violent third strikers released from prison after having their sentences reduced.

They are not being released because they are innocent. As Romano said on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast,

“Our clients are, in almost every circumstance, absolutely guilty. We’re not going into court and saying that they didn’t do it. What we’re saying is that the punishment that they received for this petty crime is disproportionate.”

This disproportionate punishment is unjust, and it is bankrupting our state. We are wasting precious resources to unnecessarily incarcerate minor offenders who pose little threat to society for huge periods of time – and draining resources away from the law enforcement agencies, community organizations and schools that can truly prevent crime and keep us safe.

Simply put, it is time to reform Three Strikes – so that it is focused on the serious and violent repeat offenders we all agree society must be protected from. Because Three Strikes was passed by a voter initiative, it can only be changed by initiative. In the past, Three Strikes was viewed as untouchable. But now, with the state facing fiscal catastrophe, and Romano and his students bringing attention to the unjust extremes of the law with each new client that gets released, there is momentum for change.

Romano thinks that there is another ingredient necessary for successful reform: political leadership. He says that “with a few notable exceptions, there has been very little leadership on this issue from our elected law enforcement leaders.”

Now is the time to show the leadership what it will take to return to sensible, cost-effective and fair criminal justice polices in California.


David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney. You can listen to Onek’s recent interview with Romano on the Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast.

Prop 19 was only the beginning…

By Allen Hopper, ACLU of Northern California

California voters came out in droves to support Proposition 19 this November. More than 4.1 million people voted for Prop. 19, which would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for personal use and allow cities and counties to tax and regulate commercial sales. That’s more votes than Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina garnered. Though the measure didn’t pass, the degree of support marks an undeniable leap forward in the movement to end marijuana prohibition. In the end, Prop. 19 achieved a higher percentage of “yes” votes (46%) than any state-level legalization measure on the ballot over the past decade.  

This is clearly only the beginning of a new, more rational public discussion about marijuana. It’s no longer a question of whether marijuana prohibition should end, but rather when and how. Post-election polling data shows that many voters who rejected Prop. 19 nonetheless believe that marijuana should be made legal. Even the leaders of the opposition to Prop. 19 publicly stated that they are not opposed to marijuana legalization, “if it’s done the right way.”  

There is already talk about another initiative on the California ballot in 2012, and California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has pledged to introduce a new statewide tax and regulate bill. And California is not alone in its efforts. Several other states are likely to have legalization or decriminalization on the ballot in the near future, including Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and Nevada. What we know is that it is clear that states do indeed have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to keep state marijuana prohibition laws on the books.  

The war on drugs has failed, and people are ready for a change. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. One in every 31 adults is on probation, in jail or in prison. FBI figures show that over 800,000 people in the U.S. are arrested for marijuana offenses each year. The vast majority of these arrests are for low-level, nonviolent simple possession offenses. Drug law enforcement in the United States is a driving force behind some of the worst aspects of our flawed criminal justice system, including tragic racial disparities. People of color are arrested at far higher rates than whites for marijuana offenses, even though rates of drug use are equal across racial lines.  According to the Prison Policy Initiative, we incarcerate black men in the United States today at rates more than five times higher than in South Africa during apartheid.  

The public is taking notice that ending marijuana prohibition will ease our overwhelmed state and local budgets, and will free up law enforcement resources to address serious and violent crime.

Despite the disappointing outcome, Prop. 19 was a giant step in the right direction. Let’s keep the discussion going.    

Allen Hopper is the Police Practices Director at the ACLU of Northern California.

When Will California Stop Shackling Pregnant Women?

By Bethany Woolman, Communications Fellow, ACLU of Northern California

In California, we shackle pregnant women in prison.

And despite widespread opposition, we will continue to do so.

Last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have ordered county jails and prisons to stop shackling pregnant women. The bill, AB1900, required new guidelines on restraining pregnant women and would have encouraged counties to adopt these policies. It had overwhelming bipartisan support and passed the legislature without a single “no” vote.

The governor, however, opted to let the dangerous practice of shackling pregnant women continue.

As I type, jails and prisons across the state are forcing pregnant women to walk with shackles around their swollen ankles, chains around their middles, and handcuffs behind their backs – even through the first minutes of labor. This practice is inhumane.

The bottom line is this: shackling a pregnant woman puts her health at risk. Doing so can result in nasty falls and cause miscarriage or other serious injuries. Accordingly, doctors have opposed the use of shackles on pregnant women.

And it gets worse.

Although it’s already against California law to shackle women during labor, AB1900 would have gone further to prevent shackling of women at all stages of pregnancy while they are in transit. Disturbingly, only one third of county jails currently enforce pre-existing law preventing shackling of women in labor, making the passage of AB1900 even more crucial. This is unacceptable. Shackles can impair a doctor’s ability to treat a woman in labor in an emergency situation, putting her health at risk. No doctor should have to argue with correctional officers over when to unshackle a patient.

Shackling these women is cruel and unusual punishment – a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Incarcerated pregnant women have a right to safe treatment during pregnancy and delivery. The use of shackles violate that right and puts the health of pregnant women at risk. Kudos to the supporters and advocates who work every day to unshackle pregnant women, and to the legislature for advancing the bill. And shame on Gov. Schwarzenegger for keeping such a barbaric policy in place.

Although it is regretful that the governor clearly undermined the legislature on this issue, it is heartening that AB 1900 passed both houses of the California legislature with tremendous support from across the political spectrum. A tide of public opinion and awareness is turning. The movement to end the shackling of pregnant women is growing. This year Washington state joined ranks with a handful of other states to limit the shackling of women in labor. We hope that in the future these protections will extend to women in all stages of pregnancy. Let’s keep the drumbeat going.

California Won’t Educate You, But We’ll Lock You Up: How The Lack Of Data Leads To Bad Policy

By Diana Tate Vermeire, Racial Justice Project Director, ACLU of Northern California

The state’s criminal justice system is quickly becoming the only social service California is willing to fund. Our prison system is bursting at the seams, while school funding is drying up at the well. In the midst of a fiscal crisis — one that only seems to be getting worse — California continues to prioritize criminal justice spending instead of investing in the future of our state. Public education and crucial social service programs like welfare-to-work continue to experience drastic cuts, but California is loath to cut criminal justice spending.

Rather than choosing to prioritize basic necessities like a quality education, a job, and a place to live, our state’s leaders are instead forcing social service agencies to close their doors, deny services, or turn certain individuals away altogether. Meanwhile, our jails and prisons remain open to anyone brought to their doors, no matter the cost. That choice-pouring scarce financial resources into the criminal justice system rather than much-needed social services-has resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, and an alarming uptick in the number of women – both women of color and white women –  who are behind bars.

A new study by the ACLU of Northern California and the W. Haywood Burns Institute explores how racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in access to education, employment, and housing impact presence in the criminal justice system in three California counties: Alameda, Fresno, and Los Angeles. An important finding is that — surprise, surprise — these factors are related to how likely it is someone will wind up in jail or prison. It’s no far leap to presume that this is not an accident, but a direct result of the choices California makes.

But our study also found that counties are not collecting data in a way that allows us to fully understand how the existence of the racial, ethnic, and gender disparities outside the criminal justice system creates or reinforces those same disparities within it. This lack of data means that policymakers are creating policies without fully understanding the impact of their decisions.

Without adequate data from the counties, we turned to first-hand stories of people’s life experiences before and after their contact with police, jails, or prison.  

We interviewed people on probation, and their responses were alarming.

–  Those who attended schools where police officers regularly patrolled campuses had a greater likelihood of being arrested at a young age, expelled, and suspended.

–  Nearly two-thirds of the people interviewed reported they had inadequate income at the time of their arrest, and around 20 percent indicated that they turned to crime to help make ends meet.

–  In Alameda County, people on probation were less likely to have graduated high school, compared to the county’s average graduation rate.

–  In Fresno County, with a county unemployment rate of less than 10 percent, 29 percent of men interviewed and 59 percent of women interviewed were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest. Nearly 21 percent of the Black labor force in Fresno County is unemployed, but 64 percent of Black interviewees were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest.

Our findings point to a disturbing reality: we have overfunded California’s criminal justice system at the expense of critical social services. Those services, which are meant to ensure our citizens have access to the basic necessities of life, have been sacrificed for more prisons and an expensive new death row.

Communities of color and women can no longer afford California’s business as usual. The rates of incarceration for people of color — and increasingly, women — are not caused solely by the systemic bias within the criminal justice system. They are also directly related to the racial, ethnic, and gender disparities of who has access to the basic necessities of quality education, employment, and housing.

It’s time California prioritizes public safety by investing in prevention and intervention strategies, particularly those that reduce racial, ethnic, and gender disparities. By no means will all crime be eliminated. But we can choose to invest in programs that help turn lives around and give opportunities, instead of giving up so easily. To help us get there, counties must collect better data so we know the realities of what we are working with, and policymakers can make better, more informed decisions.

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.

A New Deal for California Part 3 – Educate and Punish

Note: this is a cross-post from The Realignment Project.


In part 1 of a New Deal for California, I discussed why any effort to rebuild the state must begin with a frontal assault on high unemployment as the only reliable means of achieving budget stability – as opposed to self-defeating quests for balance via austerity. In part 2, I studied how the quest for a more perfect democracy is inextricably linked to a renewal of democratic control over the state's own revenues.

Today, I want to discuss two areas of policy that are among the largest spending categories in the California state budget, but which also represent two faces of the state, and two approaches to developing its youth, and two sets of values – namely, education and prisons.

Arnold's recent proposal to put a floor under higher education at 10% of the state budget and a ceiling over prisons at 7% of the state budget is only the most recent example of a long trend of discussing the two in the same breath. As I discussed in the linked article, Schwarzenegger's approach is fundamentally flawed, a mirage of egalitarianism masking a reality of utter callousness. A moral society cannot pay for the future of its most talented youth through the deliberate immiseration of its least advantaged.

However, a New Deal for California will have to grapple with the reality that California will either educate or incarcerate its young, and that the power to choose lies with us.

Higher Education:

In my previous posts on higher education, I've tried to get across the idea that the purpose of public higher education is to expand and improve the functioning of democracy, that higher education is a social and public good, not a private commodity, and that the way a public university is run speaks volumes about the values of the society. If there is an overarching theme here, it's that the choices a state makes on higher education both reflect and shape the nature of its society. A state where the children of the poor and the children of the rich are equally limited only by the boundaries of ambition and ability will be a society is genuinely one of equal opportunity and healthy, meritocratic competition. At the same time, states should also think of higher education as a social investment in a high-road economy, distinguished by high levels of skill and education, high wages, and high living standards.

A New Deal for California is absolutely about making that investment and choosing that high-road, but one of the things you see in public discourse about higher education in California in progressive circles is a certain fuzziness – when it's razor-sharp conviction that wins the day in politics. There's the required genuflections in the direction of the 1960 Master Plan, and perhaps even a statement about how “college should be free!” or how cheap it was to attend the U.C when they were young, but nothing about how we proceed from where we are to were we want to go.

By contrast, I think a New Deal for California had to start with a genuine commitment to a new Master Plan for California that charts a path for gradually reducing tuition to $0 for the U.Cs, CSUs, and Community Colleges over the next 20 years. We should be clear about how much this will cost: it will take about $1.7 billion a year to make the U.C tuition-free, about $2 billion a year to make the CSUs tuition-free (about $5,000 a year in tuition times 417,000 students), and about $1.78 billion a year ($614 a year times 2.9 million students) to make the Community Colleges tuition. Altogether, we're talking about $5.8 billion per year, or an extra $290 million per year.

Assemblyman Torrico's AB 656, which would establish a 10% excise tax on oil extraction to provide about $2 billion a year to higher education (a system already in place in Texas, which funds the University of Texas through an oil excise tax). That gets us about a third of the way to our goal. The rest could be assembled from a variety of revenue sources – this is not beyond the means of one of the richest states in the Union,  and one of the richest economies in the world.

One idea that has been suggested in the United Kingdom by Ed Milliband (Labour M.P, Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary) is to replace tuition costs with a “grad tax.” The idea would be that, instead of requiring students to pay tuition and go into debt up-front, which acts as a prohibitive burden for many working-class students and constraints the future career choices of graduates, that we instead ask graduates to pay a progressive surcharge of between “0.25% and 2% of their income over a 20-year period,” enabling graduates to contribute, according to their ability to pay, to higher education whether they work for a non-profit or a Fortune 500 company.

As I have said before, the ultimate goal that we should be thinking about is not 100% of the youth population attending university, but rather that 100% of the youth population being able to achieve whatever level of skill or training that their ability and ambition provides for. This means treating skills training- whether it comes in the form of a union apprenticeship, vocational or technical college, or a professional course in a community college – as just as important as any other form of education. It means paying more attention to helping students get employed as well as enrolled (such as is the case in the German and Japanese education systems). And it means making sure that students graduate high school able to take advantage of higher education/training.

A Word About K-12:

I'll only say a few words onK-12 education, since it's not an area of public policy that I've actually done much work on. As someone who's been a TA at the U.C for four years, I can certainly attest to the fact that California needs to do a better job at preparing students, both for college and employment, because it's quite surprising how many of the top 12.5% of high schoolers in California have real problems with constructing essays or interpreting reading.

Here's what I'll say – I believe that the “Educational Equality Project” reform community has over-emphasized college preparation, has tended to over-emphasize incentives over resources, and relies too much on an economistic model of corporate efficiency. I think primary and secondary schools should emphasize employment as well as college, and experiment with the German and Japanese model of partnering with employers to offer students additional paths for career development; in part, I think this comes from an approach to manifest class and racial inequalities that opts for individual, behavioral intervention (assuming that schools can “solve for” poverty without outside interventions on social conditions, and emphasizing college attendance without consideration for labor market conditions).

Moreover, I think reformers have under-sold the degree of resources that will be needed to correct inequalities in resources (which is why California needs to move to equalization of funding across school districts) as well as social and cultural capital. Things like increasing instruction time, providing tutoring to struggling students, and lowering class sizes are all well and good – I'd even add commitments to expand Head Start to 100% of those within 150% of poverty, and extend it, “Follow Through” style, to prevent “Head Start fade” in primary school –  but they will require a significant commitment of funds to work.

I think the rhetorical emphasis on incentives over resources comes from two sources: first, it comes from the unspoken recognition that a lot of the key policies adopted in heavily-promoted charter schools aren't costless, which raises questions about scaling. KIPP is lauded among EEP-style reformers, but a 60% longer school day/year, 24/7 teacher availability, and weekend work costs, and not just in dollar terms – 50%-plus turnover rates are common in KIPP schools. Second, it comes from what Matt Yglesias refers to as a “Green Lantern” theory about education – if teacher productivity and efficiency are what matters, then you don't have to deal with the fact that California schools are 43rd in the nation in per-pupil spending, because all you have to do is push teachers hard enough. At the end of the day though, resources are real and it is not impossible for California to commit to raising its commitment to the top 10 in the nation over a period of 10-20 years, similar to the commitment to tuition-free higher education as well.

Finally, as I've said before, I think the debate over accountability and results has become poisoned by the link between the models of accountability used by reformers and ideas about corporate efficiency, leading to a massive level of distrust among teachers and their unions. I've said it before, but it bears repeating – I'd be very interested to see how EEP reformers would react to an offer to have accountability and performance targets negotiated right into collective bargaining contracts, and put the unions in charge of and responsible for teacher quality.


All of this discussion of resources brings us to the piggy bank that both Schwarzenegger and I are hoping to use to improve the quality of education – California's overstuffed prison population, the second-largest in the nation. Right now, California imprisons 616/100,000 persons, and its prison population has been growing 500% over the last twenty years. This expansion has led to a growing budgetary burden, overcrowding, and a series of lawsuits over health and safety standards. No one particularly disputes that something needs to be done, but there are different ways to go about it.

Schwarzenegger's vision is to combine privatizationand outsourcing – essentially to shove our prisons off our books and avoid changing the way we deal with our offenders. This is morally unacceptable for any sane society. Private prisons are rightly notorious for corruption, abuse, and the further cutting of corners on medical care, living conditions, and safety standards. Shifting our prisons to Mexico is simply an attempt to do privatization without getting tripped up by lawsuits filed in American courts when the inevitable lawsuits alleging subhuman standards emerge. California should certainly commit to keeping prison spending below 7% of the state budget, but this is not a just way to do it.

However, there are ways to solve our prison problems. California's shift to drug courts and rehabilitation has paid dividends in the form of 10,000 fewer prisoners on drugs charges than in the 1990s, but there are still 30,000 prisoners on non-violent drugs charges who could be better dealt with outside the prison system. The bigger target is California's broken parole system – about 70% of parolees are re-incarcerated (the vast majority of cases being not new criminal violations but rather some technical violation of the terms of parole), at a rate that has increased six-fold in the last 20 years. As a result, about two-thirds of prison admissions are parolees rather than new offenders. There are better ways to handle our parolee problem than the current system of catch and release, and solving our parole problem would largely solve our overcrowding problem.

Dealing with these two factors would allow California's criminal justice system, including the police, courts, prisons, and parole systems, to focus on doing a better job with the prisoners we've got. This means more, not less, effort directed at deterring violent crime and higher rates of arrest; this means freeing up resources to separate out first-time and non-violent offenders from hard-core criminals and violent offenders, with an eye towards reducing our state's abysmally high recidivism rate. In the end, being smart about crime works better than toughness for toughness' sake.

On an ironic note, one of the few truly successful anti-recidivism strategies in the U.S has been the oft-targeted, poorly-funded college education programs. Expanding the commitment of college for all to the prisons might itself help to solve our prison problem.

Side-note – on Interdependent Parts:

In earlier segments of this series, I talked about the need for an overarching vision for California, beyond just the policy-specific pieces. To that end, it's important to see how education and prison policy fit as parts of a larger whole. For example, let's examine the impact of full employment policy and changes to democratic governance and revenue on these two areas of public policy.

To begin with, full employment would greatly increase the public revenues available for K-12 and higher education. It would also add on a crucial back-stop to our system of educational development, ensuring that U.C and CSU and CCC graduates who've received incredibly expensive training don't get thrown on to an overcrowded labor market (as is happening now) where they can't find work, leaving their training to go to waste. It also means that rather than focusing solely on college attendance as our only strategy for getting kids out of poverty that we can offer them a chance at high-wage full time employment. Prior to the unraveling of high-wage labor in the 1980s, a high school graduate who had neither interest nor aptitude for an academic career could get a job for life as a skilled, semi-skilled, or even unskilled worker and be assured of economic security and a middle-class standard of living. With full employment, there's no reason that we can't build our way to an economy that provides opportunity to those kids as well as the college-bound.

Full employment would also greatly reduce our prison burden. We know that anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of prison admissions are unemployed at the time of incarceration, that many property crimes are associated with unemployment, and that the increased difficulty of finding employment as an ex-offender is a major cause of recidivism. While certainly not a silver bullet (violent crime is not particularly correlated with employment rates), full employment can only help. (On a slightly more cynical note, one of the reasons why prison guard unions have resisted parole reform, decriminalization, and other efforts that might reduce the prison population is out of a desire to protect the jobs of their members. In a full employment economy, where workers could be assured of having a job, this political inertia could be more easily overcome).

A similar case is true for democracy and revenues. A more functional democracy, where legislators could more easily match our revenues to the level and kind of goods and services demanded by the people, is one where the kinds of commitments we want to make to both higher and primary education can be made, and where reforms to our prisons systems can be more transparently and directly debated and carried out.


There are 159,000 students at the University of California. They are among the top 12.5% of our youth, the most talented, the best educated, with the greatest likelihood to succeed. There are 170,000 prisoners in the California prison system – they are disproportionately young, non-white, and less-educated. Even when they are released, they will find it more difficult to find employment, housing, and credit. To place the burden of the best prepared on the least prepared is to compound injustice with unfairness.

Remember These Moments

True to the reality of a weak political media and an inattentive public, the chatter over the results of the July budget revision, despite major cuts to the social safety net, has completely subsided.  No taxes got increased and nobody “important” got hurt, so it was just time to move on.  Politicians just move on to the business of raising corporate money, special interests can move on to the business of writing laws that help their bottom line, and everybody in Sacramento can praise everybody else for “sacrificing” to get things done.  

Only, for the people living under the consequences of these budgets, created through a choice not to properly pay for needed services, the budget battle is not forgotten.  And it doesn’t consist of a group of numbers in a column.  It’s entirely real and it hits them every single day.  Here’s just one example.

Six domestic violence shelters in California have been forced to close while dozens more are scaling back services after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated all state funding for the program that supports them.

Shelters in the Central Valley town of Madera, the Sierra foothill town of Grass Valley and in Ventura County in Southern California have closed. Others in the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and Bakersfield are on the verge of closing.

Many centers are laying off staff and closing satellite offices that serve remote areas of the state as they cope with the budget cuts. A national domestic violence group describes California’s as the deepest cuts to such programs nationwide, even as other states have reduced funding.

In Madera County, officials have turned away six domestic violence victims and eight children since the county’s only shelter closed Aug. 7, said Tina Figueroa, the shelter’s director. The Martha Diaz Shelter served about 100 victims a year, many of them low-income and with no place else to turn, she said.

So 100 victims of domestic violence in smallish Madera County now have truly nowhere to turn, and will either suffer under the boot of their abusive partners or, in many cases, be killed by them.  The director of domestic violence policy in the LA City Attorney’s office pretty clearly calls these programs “homicide prevention.”  It also saves money relative to what you spend prosecuting the eventual homicides.  I’ve seen “tough on crime” conservatives over the years invoke the name of victims and stir up public support for laws in their name.  They go curiously silent when hundreds of domestic violence victims are put at risk of death because they want to save rich people and corporations from having to pay for their fair share of the commons.

These closures are the direct result of line-item cuts by the Governor.  So the blood is on his hands.  Leland Yee has a bill that attempts to cover the domestic violence shelter budget with cash from a crime victims fund, but under 2/3 rules, it’s not likely to pass this week.

Kudos to the AP for doing a story on this; but there need to be many more.  There’s a human face on the budget cuts that has completely been lost and forgotten.  Those suffering are right to suspect that nobody in Sacramento cares about them.