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

Saturday, August 22, 2009

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.

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