Politics & Law

Living it up at the Hotel California: For Jerry Brown and California’s political leadership, it’s always 1977

Jonathan Simon

Watching California politics these days I can’t help feeling that I’m lost in the late 1970s, when I first moved to the Golden State (in August of ’77 with the Eagle’s hit released that March still riding high on the charts).

It’s not just that Jerry Brown is still governor. It’s that when it comes to prisons and crime policy, the Governor and entire political establishment are still acting like they are lost in the 70s. Then, the state was experiencing nearly20 years of escalating violent crime. Instead of being reinforced to address this frightening trend, the state’s major correctional institutions were decimated by a series of destructive policy choices, including  Ronald Reagan’s dismantling of the mental health system (and his covert campaign to keep the prisoner population small to avoid raising taxes) and Jerry Brown’s misguided Determinate Sentence Law (which severed any connection between prison sentences and public safety).

The public lost all confidence in the increasingly incoherent system and was easily led down the road to mass incarceration. A political culture steeped in this combination of fear and mistrust of government learned to “govern through crime,” achieving popularity by passing extreme sentencing laws that only reinforced fear and mistrust.

The latest evidence that we remain stuck in this Ground Hog Day mentality about crime is the Governor’s contemptuous response to the Coleman-Plata three-judge court order requiring a plan to meet the longstanding population cap.  I will post a more detailed analysis of the Governor’s “plan” later.  Suffice it to say it is a document reeking of the past.

Consider that on a list of possible ways to achieve the overcrowding goal (an Orwellian concept that would still leave the State’s prisons grossly overcrowded by any baseline other their own disastrous recent past), the first three all rely on incarceration (building prisons, using jails, sending more prisoners to private prisons).

The State’s new correctional chief, Jeffrey Beard, has gone from being a respected national professional to sounding like a political hack in record time, warning ominously at a press conference that the plan was being proposed under protest and would endanger Californians (meanwhile according to the judicial monitors, he continues to preside over human-rights violations on a daily basis).  The Governor and the Director of Corrections apparently have uniform support among both parties in the legislature, where even liberals like Senate President Darrell Steinberg take a no-compromise stand against “early release” for any prisoners.

But while among the Sauvignon Blanc-sipping Baby Boomers that the Governor and the Senate President and their contributors hang out with, it must always seem like 1978 (when names like Charles Manson and George Jackson were enough to silence opposition to the death penalty and mindless prison sentences), there is evidence that for younger Californians things have change.  Consider that in 1978, the initiative to expand California’s death penalty, to apply it to many more murders, passed overwhelmingly with 71 percent of the vote, while in 2012, despite no support from the State’s liberal leaders and a modest campaign, a proposition to repeal the death penalty altogether failed narrowly, 52 to 48 percent, and an initiative to reduce the State’s extreme 3-Strikes law passed comfortably.

The reasons for the change are complex but all around us.  Violent crime began to go down in the early 1990s and despite California’s astonishing lack of innovation and leadership on crime policy (outside of LAPD), it remains low by historic standards.  There is plenty of evidence around the country that innovative policing and mental-health strategies can take a further bite out of violent crime and bolster public confidence to use and occupy our urban streets.  Finally, the State’s disastrous management of the prisons led the Supreme Court to denounce the torture-like conditions prisoners were exposed to as incompatible with the norms of “civilized society” and affirm the population-reduction plan the Governor is now campaigning against.

Within the echo chamber of Sacramento, and among cable news watchers, the Governor’s pandering on crime fear, and tough talk about building more prisons, must sound awfully good (its certainly awfully familiar).  In the meantime, the young people I teach every day at Berkeley seem less worried about crime than about their economic future as the seniors among them prepare to enter a job market still at emergency levels of unemployment, and all of them ponder the challenges of building families in an increasingly precarious environment of drought, fire, and crumbling infrastructure.

Last thing I remember, I was running for the door,
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before, 
“Relax,” said the night man, “We are programmed to receive, 
You can check out anytime you like… but you can never leave”

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

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