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

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Reaction: Tough On Crime Robots Cannot Come To Terms With Reality

The federal ruling to reduce the prison population by over 40,000 is the result of a years-long, if not decades-long process, where the failed leaders run amok in Sacramento have let the corrections system grow completely out of control, preferring to warehouse prisoners into modified Public Storage units instead of embarking on same, smart policies that would save us money and make us safer. In response to this damaging comment on the state's failure, the political leadership has... signed up for more failure:

Attorney General Jerry Brown said in an interview that the order is probably not appealable, but eventually the state will have to consider going directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, marking the first time the high court would face such a case.

"I think the Supreme Court would see it differently," Brown said.

State officials said the proper solution is for the governor and legislators to work out a reduction plan as funding becomes available. The state should not be forced to function under the hammer of a federal court order, they said.

"We just don't agree that the federal courts should be ordering us to take these steps," said Matthew Cate, secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

How dare the federal courts order anyone around to respect Constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment! Who the hell do they think they are, a co-equal branch of government?

What's so interesting about this is how abnormal it is. Federal courts grant a significant amount of leeway to the states to manage affairs. But when a state consistently and deliberately violates Constitutional rights without letup, they must act. And that's been true for a long time.

California's archipelago of 33 prisons houses more than 170,000 inmates, nearly twice the number it was designed to safely hold. Almost all of its facilities are bursting at the seams: More than 16,000 prisoners sleep on what are known as "ugly beds" — extra bunks stuffed into cells, gyms, dayrooms, and hallways. [Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger has referred to the system as a "powder keg."

....Even as Schwarzenegger has promised reform, the corrections budget has exploded during his term, from $4.7 billion in fiscal 2004 to nearly $10 billion in fiscal 2007, or about $49,000 for each adult inmate.

....For more than three decades, California has been trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle where putting more people in prison for longer periods of time has become the answer to every new crime to capture the public's attention — from drug dealing and gangbanging to tragic child abductions. Spurred on by a powerful prison guards' union and politicians afraid of looking soft on crime, corrections has become a bottomless pit, where countless lives and dollars disappear year after year. And now that it has metastasized to the point where even a tough-guy governor and the guards agree that the prisons must be downsized or else (see "When Prison Guards Go Soft"), every attempt at change seems stymied by inertia. The sheer size of the system has become the biggest obstacle to finding alternatives to warehousing criminals without preparing them for anything more than another cycle of incarceration. "The public believes the prison population reflects the crime rate," says James Austin, a corrections consultant who has served on several prison-reform panels in California. "That's just not true. It's because of California's policies and the way it runs the system."

This is a policy failure driven by a political failure, a cowardly series of actions that arises from a broken system of government. Dan Walters happens to be spot-on today - politicians have played on people's fears for 30 years and, faced with the tragedy they created, delayed and procrastinated until it became so torturous that the courts had to step in. From the three-strikes law to the 1,000 sentencing laws passed by the Legislature, all increasing sentences, nobody comes out looking good in this failure of leadership. Even the Attorney General of the United States recognizes that we cannot jail our way out of crime problems.

“We will not focus exclusively on incarceration as the most effective means of protecting public safety,” Holder told the American Bar Association delegates meeting here for their annual convention. “Since 2003, spending on incarceration has continued to rise, but crime rates have flattened.”

“Today, one out of every 100 adults in America is incarcerated — the highest incarceration rate in the world,” he said. But the country has reached a point of diminishing returns at which putting even greater percentages of America’s citizens behind bars won’t cut the crime rate.

Mark Kleiman has additional good thoughts.

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