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

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The $3 Million Dollar-A-Day Delay

Despite the assumed end to the prison crisis, there's still no bill to clarify the $1.2 billion dollars in savings assumed from cuts in the July budget. The Assembly passed a bill that fell $200 million dollars short and had almost no prison reform in it (some parole reform, but no prison reform), and the Senate has yet to take that bill up. After word yesterday that the Senate would do so, Darrell Steinberg backed away from it, seeking to give more time to the Assembly to add more reform and more cuts into the bill. Because the bill only requires a majority vote, it takes effect 90 days after passage. Which means that every day with no bill costs the state $3.3 million dollars. This is the consequence of so-called fiscal conservatives in the Yacht Party, as well as their higher-office-seeking bretheren in the Assembly Democratic caucus, wanting to look tough on crime. As the State Worker notes, this delay is taking a daily hit on the savings gained from furloughs:

Here's one way that furloughed state workers could look at this: The CDCR budget impasse is whittling away at savings from furloughs. If you take that $3.3 million and multiply it by the 70 days from July 1 through today, you realize the state has burned through $231 million.

A single furlough day cuts about $61 million from the state's payroll, although not all of that savings is in the general fund. (The rounded math: $2.2 billion divided by 36 furlough days in the fiscal year.) If you narrow it down to just salaries that the administration defines as being in the general fund, one furlough day equals about $35 million. (Double check our rounded numbers: $1.3 billion divided by the 36 furlough days.)

In other words, this budget-stalemate-in-miniature has squandered the equivalent of about four furlough days for everyone or nearly seven furlough days if you look only at general fund employees.

Other states have used smart on crime policies to reduce spending without any loss in public safety. They are taking new looks at non-violent offenders, relaxing draconian sentencing policies, targeting parole resources to those who need supervision and concurrently lowering recidivism rates through rehabilitation. Right now, California has the exact wrong set of policies on prisons.

In fact, California is nationally known "for having the most dysfunctional sentencing and parole system" in the country, according to Stanford University professor Joan Petersilia, a criminologist who has spent years working with state officials trying to implement reforms.

"We're too harsh and too lenient. Simultaneously," Petersilia said.

Our mix of tough laws and fixed terms doesn't give prison officials the flexibility to push low-risk offenders toward rehabilitation and keep dangerous criminals behind bars.

But reform efforts haven't gained public traction because we're too busy trying to keep people behind bars -- with Jessica's Law, Megan's Law, the three-strikes law -- to take a hard look at whether locking up more people actually makes us safer.

"The public doesn't understand how illogical the whole system has become," Petersilia said. "We think that somehow we've created something that is able to call out the most dangerous people, send them to prison and keep them in for a very long time.

"And the public is willing to pay whatever it takes to get that type of crime policy."

I disagree with the last sentence. The public is willing to be frightened into initiatives that do nothing for public safety and just spend money needlessly, because they've seen no leadership on the other side for an alternative conception of how to protect the public sensibly and best manage our cirminal justice system. Nobody has argued in public for a more intelligent system for so long, that the public willingness to believe in its possibility has atrophied. We can keep the lock-em-up policies or we can look to a better future. Either way, we're blowing $3 million a day while some Assembly Democrats go on a desperate search for their spines.

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