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True Lies: Good Rhetoric on Prison Spending Is not a Plan for Action

Jonathan Simon

Most of what Governor Schwarzenegger has said during his six years in office about California’s bloated carceral state is true.  Most of his proposals to move us beyond this obvious disaster for our polity amount to lies.

I have nothing against rhetoric, in fact I make my living producing and analyzing  it (with apologies to the professionals in the rhetoric department).   Indeed, I had great hopes that this action hero Governor might really use his clear rhetorical skills to tell Californians that we have too much fear embodied in our penal code and prison policies.

  • He called the parole system “broken.”
  • He described our prisons as involved in “warehousing people” (a phrase used by Marxist criminologists in my days in graduate school).
  • He renamed our prison agency the “Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation” (a bit repetitive, but the right direction).
  • And just the other day he spoke about the shame of a state that spends more on prisons than higher education (as if he was just arriving in the state).

Sadly, beyond renaming the boxes, Governor Schwarzenegger’s policy moves have mostly been non-serious, including this proposal to use our constitution to favor higher education spending over prisons.

  • His initial approach to the impending court ordered population caps was to call for building space for another 50,000 prison beds (under the premise that they would provide reentry and rehabilitative services).  AB900 became law, but has never been implemented.
  • After initially calling for a new culture of rehabilitation within the prison service, he failed to back up his reform Secretaries of Correction, Rod Hickman and Jeannie Woodford, who were cut to pieces by resistance from the bureaucracy and from the powerful union and left to resign. Six years into his administration, his current corrections chief admitted that fewer than half of all prisoners leaving a California prison have had even a day of rehabilitative programming, let alone been rehabilitated.
  • Now, he uses his final state of the state address to put forward a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee a bigger share of the state revenue to higher education than to state prisons.  Putting aside the dubiousness of adding yet another amendment to our Rube Goldberg designed state constitution, the governors proposal is actually a call to privatize prisons, and thus reduce the cost per prisoner, rather than to reduce mass imprisonment itself.  The proposal has no chance of being adopted in that form and should not be.
  • The Governor’s latest budget proposal is more of the same.  The plan calls for cutting prison spending by 1.2 billion, but with more than 800 million of it coming out court ordered spending on prison medical facilities, something that will not happen.

In the end the Schwarzenegger administration has left Californians at an impasse on prisons.  We appear to be done with the era when California governors campaigned on their commitment to locking up ever more Californians regardless of the consequences for higher education or any other state priority, in the style of George Deukmeijian, Pete Wilson, and Gray Davis.  But one searches the horizon in vain for the appearance of state leaders willing to talk honestly with Californians about the need to rethink our commitment to mass incarceration.

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Comments to "True Lies: Good Rhetoric on Prison Spending Is not a Plan for Action":
    • Candice Nagel

      20 years ago when I was in the Arizona State Legislature a fellow lobbying came to my office and said “Prisons are the largest growing industry in the USA, you better get on board.” I told him he was crazy and get out of my office.

      Little did I know how much I did not know! This evil fact has become reality. The whale em and jail em laws are being passed daily and very politically popular. The efforts make the drug companies look like pikers.

      Good luck and stay with your efforts.
      …a non wing nut in Arizona…I now have no political party so registered Independent. I am an Arizona Born business conservative now called a liberal! Only room here in the Republican party for birthers, gun nuts & biggots.

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    • Char Campbell

      Thank the Lord that someone sees and knows that the CCPOA could care less about the inmates rehabilitation, medical issues or anything else accept they have a “money making” business and are rich enough to sway political issued regarding the prisons even if some of their actions are criminal to keep the “money machine” working for them.

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    • rich mckone

      The prison overcrowding issue is based more on union politics rather than fact and analysis. The prison bed shortage, based on the independent Legislative Analysist (LAO) prison bed figures, is only about 3,500 beds. The LAO reported that AB 900 would result in a 32,000 prison bed surplus by 2012. The actual correctional system shortage is the 66,500 county jail bed shortage reported by the California Sheriffs Association, not in the prison system.
      The county jail bed shortage caused the gradual transfer of about half of the usual jail population, including technical parole violators, to the prison system, the reason for the minor prison overcrowding. Prior to the jail bed shortage, about half of the inmate population was in county jail and half in prison. The 242,000 inmate population is now distributed 34% in county jail and 66% in prison. The requirement for transfer to prison for violation disposition is the reason California has such high violation rate. This artificially high rate adds about $350 million annually to prison operating costs.
      If the parole revocation system were simply fixed, about 10,000 to 15,000 prison beds would be freed up, avoiding spending billions for prison construction and saving a few hundred million in annual prison operating costs. The parole system could be fixed permanently by passing a law authorizing the State to contract with counties for parole supervision. Under the courts, the violation rates would return to a reasonable level. Minnesota and Oregon have contracted with counties for parole supervision since the early 1970s. Those parole systems work!

      Increasing contract beds from 4% of capacity to 9% like Texas would save about $310 million annually and avoid spending over $4 billion for prison construction. Instead, the State is closing contract facilities. Billions could be cut from the prison system budget without any impact on public safety or releasing any inmates early. It only requires the political leadership to resist correctional employee influence, a rare commodity in Sacramento.

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    • Governor Schwarzenegger’s suggestion to direct the lion’s share of proposed spending cuts against prison medical facilities is an indication of just how powerful the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA)is. Capping medical expenditures is at the top of the CCPOA’s budget recommendations set out in their “Cut the fat, not the muscle” release. See http://www.ccpoa.org/documents/cutthefat.pdf

      The prison guards are going to fight any attempts to lay off officers or cut their pay, and they have tremendous influence over both parties in California.

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    • Larry Phipps

      Right on Professor Simon!
      It’s refreshing to read a concise, no nonsense account of the prison fiasco.
      In a very short essay you managed to hit the nail on the head and cut through the massive amount of rhetoric attending this issue. Pundits be damned, you-da-man…

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    • Casondra Koufos

      Thank you for this wonderful, if not emaculate, assessment on the current state of affairs within the prison industrial complex. The governor’s proposals to favor higher education over prisons is an ambitious endeavor, but I agree, it sounds more rhetorical than rational. We need educators, activists, and advocates who understand the systemic problems that plague the CDCR and Sacramento from achieving a sound and effective plan to rectify the current fiasco the state is in. Indeed, Professor Simon’s work demonstrates this best.

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    • Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal has little chance of becoming law, writes Peter Schrag in the California Progress Report. “There are any number of other ways Schwarzenegger could have reversed the shameful imbalance between California’s prison budget and its education funding – all of it from pre-kindergarten to graduate school. He could have supported changes in the California auto-pilot sentencing laws that have glutted the prisons and suck billions from the state budget each year. He could have pushed much harder for an effective sentencing commission. He could have tried to educate Californians about the huge costs the prison guards union was imposing on taxpayers.

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