As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Kindest Cut

Nobody likes the road that the budget appears to be going down, but one side benefit, perhaps the only one, is that we might yet have a conversation about the unjust and costly prison crisis that has deeply impacted the current situation. Here's Asm. Jim Beall (D-Campbell) yesterday:

We've got to reduce spending on our highest cost-drivers, prisons and health care. The prison budget has doubled in the past decade to $10 billion. The state has 173,000 inmates... Yet, California has a 70 percent recidivism rate. We aren't producing the results for the money we spend... For over half of the prisoners, drugs or alcohol played some role in their crimes. A 2006 UCLA study said 42 percent of our inmates needed alcohol treatment and 56 percent needed drug treatment. It's clear: The state should emphasize alcohol and drug treatment programs and prevention education.

Absolutely. Now, the way that the Governor is going about this, by just trying to dump undocumented immigrants in prison on the ICE and mass release without restructuring and treatment and rehab, is of course dicey. He will be helped by the Administration's effort to identify every undocumented immigrant and ready them for deportation, but that's a years-long process.

However, there are signals that the powerful prison guard's union knows exactly what could be coming - and they're trying to get out in front of it by voluntarily offering well over $6 billion in cuts. Most of it goes to capping prison health care, which has already been found to be Constitutionally inadequate, and halting prison expansion through AB900, which I think is spent through bond issues and not the General Fund. But there are other interesting recommendations in there:

2. Save up to $500 million by trimming CDCR administrative staff, which has ballooned by 400 new positions in recent months and more than doubled two of the department's administrative divisions [...]

7. Save potentially hundreds of millions of dollars ($20,000 per parolee) by embracing our past recommendation to expand Drug Court, Mental Health Court, Reentry Court and Revocation Court.

9. Save millions by no longer providing CDCR managers and headquarters staff with state vehicles and mileage allowances for commuting to work.

10. Conduct annual performance audits to determine which parole and rehabilitation programs are achieving their goals.

Remember, these are the prison guard's union's recommendations. They have an interest in keeping jails packed and ensuring overtime for their employees to manage the overcrowding. And even they understand both the need for cost-cutting and the need to expand the role of drug treatment and mental health rather than defaulting to incarceration. They're behind the curve and still modest in their goals, but significantly, the ball is moving in the direction of reducing prison costs for the first time in a long while. Obviously, jumping from this to reforming sentencing and keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison and into treatment won't be easy, and the residual "tough on crime" stance still predominates among the political class. But finally, we're having the conversation as a crisis forces the issue. Democrats ought to take this and run with it, and demand the kind of sane prison policies here that we see in Kansas and Texas.

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