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

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Stakes Of The Upcoming Prison Policy Fight

At the Netroots Nation panel (and a quick thanks to everyone who attended, and the panelists, and Dan Walters for noticing), I identified two short-term fights that are worth engaging. One consists of playing defense - stopping the Parsky Commission from instituting a Latvia-ization of California through eliminating business taxes and flattening the income tax. The other short-term fight concerns the $1.2 billion dollars in cuts to the prison budget, identified in the July budget agreement but not clarified on the specifics until the Legislature returns to work this week. We are starting to see some organizing around that, with human rights and civil liberties leaders massing on the Capitol Steps today to promote sound prison reform instead of just lopping off all rehabilitation and treatment programs for the overcrowded corrections system and calling it a day. Leland Yee, Nancy Skinner, Jim Beall and Tom Ammiano, who just replaced indie Juan Arambula as chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, will speak. So we have a sympathetic ear on one of the key committees.

About a week back, Laura Sullivan produced an NPR report describing the devolution of the corrections system in California, using Johnny Cash's historic concert at Folsom Prison as a launching pad:

The morning that Cash played may have been the high-water mark for Folsom — and for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The men in the cafeteria lived alone in their own prison cells. Almost every one of them was in school or learning a professional trade. The cost of housing them barely registered on the state budget. And when these men walked out of Folsom free, the majority of them never returned to prison.

It was a record no other state could match.

Things have changed. California's prisons are all in a state of crisis. And nowhere is this more visible than at Folsom today.

Folsom was built to hold 1,800 inmates. It now houses 4,427.

It's once-vaunted education and work programs have been cut to just a few classes, with waiting lists more than 1,000 inmates long.

Officers are on furlough. Its medical facility is under federal receivership. And like every other prison in the state, 75 percent of the inmates who are released from Folsom today will be back behind bars within three years.

In addition to having a solid education, transportation and medical system in the early post-war period, California's prisons were once the envy of the nation, too. Then the Tough On Crime crowd got a hold of the levers of power, produced 1,000 laws expanding sentences over 30 years, pushed the public to do the same through ballot initiatives, increased parole sanctions, and the system just got swamped. In the early 1980s we had 20,000 prisoners. Now it's 170,000. The overcrowding decimates rehabilitation, sends nonviolent offenders into what amounts to a college for violent crime, violates prisoner rights by denying proper medical care, and increases costs at every point along the way. Sullivan argues that much of this goes back to the prison guard's union.

In three decades, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. The union has contributed millions of dollars to support "three strikes" and other laws that lengthen sentences and increase parole sanctions. It donated $1 million to Wilson after he backed the three strikes law.

And the result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.

Sullivan uncovered a front group PAC called Crime Victims United of California that has received every one of their donations from the CCPOA. By seeding "victim's rights" groups and enabling more stringent sentencing laws, the CCPOA mainly benefits from the overtime needed for their officers to properly house 170,000 prisoners in cells designed for 100,000. 70% of the prison budget pays salaries. 5% goes to education and vocational programs. And that's the part of the budget being cut.

It only costs her about $100,000 to run these programs — not even a blip in a $10 billion-a-year prison budget. But, says Bracy, the programs are always the first to go. Sometimes she almost feels like giving up.

"It's just not cost-effective to throw men and women in prison and then do nothing with them," she said. "And shame on us for thinking that's safety. It's not public safety. You lock them up and do nothing with them. They go out not even equal to what they came in but worse."

The numbers bear that out, with 90,000 inmates returning to California's prisons every year.

But compare that to the Braille program here at Folsom. Inmates are learning to translate books for the blind. In 20 years, not a single inmate who has been part of the program has ever returned to prison. This year, the program has been cut back to 19 inmates.

Meanwhile, the Schwarzenegger Administration is about to use federal money to increase funding for anti-drug units, which will actually send more nonviolent drug offenders to prison at a time when federal judges have mandated the reduction of the population by 44,000.

This is insanity. But members of the political class, for the most part, still want to be seen as daddy protectors, and will gladly institute the exact same failed policies that have thrown the system into crisis.

We have a moment here, with $1.2 billion in mandated cuts, to create legitimate policies that can both cut costs and reduce the prison population while actually making the state safer. The recent Chino prison riot has led editorialists to come out for sensible prison policies, understanding the connection between stuffing hundreds of thousands of people into modified public storage units and the potential for unrest.

Jean Ross argued on our panel that lawmakers will probably pass the buck and let the judicial branch take the heat for any individual consequences to early release. That would be a mistake, particularly if in the process, they jettison the founding of an independent sentencing commission that would finally address the runaway sentencing laws at the heart of the crisis. The clock is ticking on whether we will have any leadership on this issue, as a report is demanded by the federal judges in mid-September. This is an organizing opportunity, a chance to show an ossified political class that we care about more than just being Tough On Crime.

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