Politics & Law

Progress and peril in California’s prison crisis

Jonathan Simon

Maria Lagos of the SF Chron provided an excellent year start summary and analysis of where things stand with California’s both chronic and acute prison crisis.

Progress? Only 8,200 prisoners are sleeping in “non-traditional” quarters, like day rooms and gyms, down from 20,000 in 2006. But almost all of this improvement has come from shipping prisoners out of state to public and private prisons elsewhere (Schwarzenegger’s major experiment in government by emergency decree), a practice that is both fiscally irresponsible and violations of the right of access to visits by family and friends that that is a component of all non-degrading punishments.

Perhaps the most striking point is that the state never built a single additional cell of the 53,000 it authorized back in 2007 in AB900, which was supposed to solve the chronic overcrowding problem through new jail space as well as specialized prison centers for re-entry and for incarcerated mothers. Infrastructure, is no doubt hard to build in California for all kinds of environmental and fiscal reasons, for zero additional space in more than three years is powerful evidence that the factors which once made prison space easy to build in California, are over. But it also suggests that the state’s capacity to stay on mission regarding prison reform, without the whip of the federal courts, is illusory (despite their bold protests during oral arguments late last year).

The peril? That California might choose limp on, squeezing under the court’s limbo pole of 40,000 fewer inmates (about 30K to go), without fundamentally altering our unsustainable commitment to mass incarceration. On the positive side, Ryan Sherman, a spokesperson for the California Professional Peace Officers Association (the union of California’s prison officers and parole agents), was quoted dismissing the potential for California to build her way out of the current crisis.

“The state cannot build its way out of the overcrowding prison problem,” he said. “If they build more beds, we will fill up more beds and continue to be overcrowded. Until we figure out how to reform and reorganize the department so it’s efficient and accountable, and take into consideration the limited budget and what’s best for the state, I don’t anticipate anything improving a great deal.”

The union would like to focus on the organization of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (which clearly needs a re-boot). Whether they would support a serious effort to downsize permanently the state’s imprisonment caseload remains unclear.

One way for Governor Brown to signal that he will not accept a muddle through solution to unwinding mass incarceration to ask the legislature to reauthorize AB900 funds, not for new cells, but to make sure that complying with the court order in Plata does not mean more crime in California by re-hiring laid off police officers around the state and purchasing evidence based recidivism reducing programing both in prisons and in direct re-entry costs. This would be well spent on public security and economic stimulus to California’s hard hit communities. It will also build support for more substantial reworking of California’s public safety strategy which was last designed to protect us from Charles Manson and needs to protect us from a massive failure of infrastructure combined with natural disasters.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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