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

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saying No To Tough On Crime, Yes To Sensible Prison Policy That Works

In between budget posts, I've lately been in a bit of a tiff with Chris Kelly, an Attorney General candidate and former Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook, over his stale, predictable fearmongering about potential early prison releases. There are a bunch of other estimable candidates in the Attorney General's race, one who did himself a ton of good yesterday by leading the fight against the offshore drilling proposal. So maybe I shouldn't take too much time on Kelly. But there's a short-term policy fight coming up next month to determine how to implement $1.2 billion in cuts to the corrections budget, and with some good activism and common sense we can stare down the Tough on Crime crowd and post a needed victory for sensible criminal justice policies. Therefore it's worth looking at Kelly's latest post:

The prison release plan is supposed to save $1.2 billion, but that’s just accounting trickery. In fact, a Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics study finds that nearly 70% of early-released inmates are rearrested within three years, 20% of them for violent crime. That will mean more than $3 billion in increased costs from crime while causing serious harm to hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.

I've spoken to police chiefs, law enforcement groups and civic associations throughout California about the issue, and they're deeply worried about the crime wave this scheme will unleash. It will be hard enough to make San Jose a safer community in tough economic times without the problems caused by early release.

Obviously, Kelly hasn't talked to the California Police Chiefs Association, which endorsed the plan as a smart step to begin to move away from the failed prison policies of the last thirty years. Foremost among these new ideas is the concept of targeting resources - instead of warehousing the terminally ill or blanket strict supervision on everyone released regardless of determining possibility of recidivism, we can put resources into programs that provide opportunity for prisoners to pay their debt to society and move on. This deal doesn't do all of that, but it does, for example, put ill and infirm prisoners under home detention or in a care facility, which doesn't impact public safety and saves money. It offers incentives for prisoners to complete rehabilitation plans. It reviews the cases of illegal immigrants in jails instead of just tossing them in the lap of the ICE to deal with, which would actually be the kind of misguided policy Kelly warns against. And most important, it includes an independent sentencing commission, outside of politics, which can look at our sentencing laws and make recommendations for the legislature to adopt on an up-or-down vote.

Using the buzzword of "early release" of "dangerous prisoners" is an old Tough on Crime ploy from way back, evoking memories of the Willie Horton ad in the 1988 Presidential race. It's irresponsible and not relevant to what is being discussed. We have the perfect Tough on Crime prison policy right now - and it's not working in every respect, to the extent that federal courts have stepped in to take control of it. Overcrowded prisons cannot fulfill their core mission of rehabilitating those jailed, and that's especially true where nonviolent offenders who need medical treatment for addiction and not incarceration are concerned. Brute force has not worked in making the state safer and has certainly caused our budget to skyrocket. And the truth is that more sensible policies can save money and create better prisons at the same time.

We need real reform in prison and parole policy, through concentrated resources, community corrections, and maintaining manageable prison capacity for those who really need to be there, and what will get decided in the legislature next month represents an important step. It can be easily derailed by fearmongering from the likes of Chris Kelly, trying to win an election on the backs of the poor and disenfranchised, on whom such brute-force policies typically rain down.

Over the next month I'll be looking far more closely at this issue, as it's the first big battle in regaining control of our state. And it's a winnable fight.

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