Skip to main content

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s little-noticed move to scale back the era of “Big Incarceration Government”

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | May 21, 2010

I’ve argued for a long time that county government, with its more realistic view of crime and local knowledge, can hold the key to resolving our endless prison crisis if they can take back their prisoners and the resources locked up in state prisons. Hidden in the depths of Governor Schwarzenegger’s “May Budget Revisions” (the adjustments to the annual January budge proposal that is based on actual revenue returns during April tax season and thus considered far more realistic),  the governor has included a proposal to have some state prisoners serve their time at the county level:

To improve the success of felony probationers, and other offenders supervised or programmed at the local level, and reduce jail and prison incarceration, the Administration proposes a system of block grants to provide evidence-based programming and other probation and jail services at the local level. The block grants will be funded from a portion of state savings generated by having non-sex offender, non-serious, non-violent offenders convicted with sentences of three years or less to serve their felony sentence in local jails. The state will provide the counties with approximately $11,500 per offender, to be allocated at the local level, for programs and services such as probation programming, drug courts, and alternative custody. A decrease of $243.8 million in 2010-11 is associated with this proposal.

Not as splashy or as publicized as the Governators’ January proposal to link prison and higher education funding, this idea reflects some of the best ideas in correctional reform including devolution from state to county and an emphasis on funding programs that can prove success based on empirical evidence (had we followed that model during the 1980s and 1990s, we would have stopped sending more people to prison long ago). As is typical in California in the era of Governing through Crime, the program comes wrapped in promises that it won’t apply to prisoners the public really fears “sex offenders”, “serious offenders,” “violent offenders.” These broad categories likely hold many individuals who could be managed more effectively (and more efficiently) at the county level.

If he gives the devolution (from state to county) solution more of his public attention and charisma, it could turn out to be the most important legacy of the Governator. Schwarzenegger deserves huge credit for, in effect, declaring the era of “Big Incarceration Government” over, but until now his forward proposals have lacked seriousness and vision. Perhaps the action hero knows that many failures can be forgiven in a strong ending.

The May Revise (as it is often called) also includes an intriguing note that the state is shifting its policies toward committing sex offenders serving state prison sentences to the state’s violent sexual predator program of indeterminate confinement following prison with the result of fewer expected inmates in the program (which has become an expensive new death row with little prospect of release for its residents). As an adjustment to the mental health portion of the budget, the May Revise includes the following:

A decrease of $7.2 million in the Sex Offender Commitment Program to reflect anticipated savings in the Sexually Violent Predator Program primarily due to a shift in the type of referrals from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

If anyone has the details behind this shift, please comment.

A version of this article was originally published in Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime site.

Comments to “Gov. Schwarzenegger’s little-noticed move to scale back the era of “Big Incarceration Government”

  1. The treatment of juveniles within the criminal justice systems is a matter of great variety in the 11 European countries studied comparatively. The study focuses on the age of criminal responsibility, ways to divert juvenile offenders from the criminal justice system or avoid criminal justice responses to them, juvenile proceedings and special reactions and sanctions. In spite of different approaches there is a common trend towards preventing juvenile offenders from being treated by criminal courts and being sentenced to criminal sanctions.

  2. To someone living outside of California (but with family there) the amount spent on running the prison system seems truly shocking. This is obviously the culmination of many factors over the years such as political pressures and the influence of the prison industry. California needs to grasp the nettle of this problem, either repealing the legislation that prevents taxes being raised or spending less. Introducing people to (which in many cases ensures they remain in) the prison system makes them a burden on the tax-payer, often for life. The internment of a large portion of the population is an expensive business, should it really be a priority?

  3. Although I see the governor’s devolution plan as deserving considerable merit, I still remain ambivalent about his proposal. I agree that empirical evidence from the Little Hoover Commission shows that county-level programs have been successful at reducing the recidivism rate for non-violent, non-serious offenders, but the mounting research has largely been overlooked time and time again.

    Is the era of “big incarceration government” really over? It’s difficult to tell given the fact that Governor Schwarzenegger has consecutively supported expanding the CDCR’s prison budget at the state level (most of which goes to housing more inmates rather than broading the scope of rehabilitative programs offered inside and outside of prison). Maybe the Governor’s rhetorical vision will translate into concrete proposals to reduce the presence of “big incarceration government” in an already bloated prison system.

  4. It’s a pity that this wasn’t put into place long ago. Japan has a high success rate with their prisoners, spends much less to keep them, and has much less fear of them all because of a change in perspective. They are actually being rehabilitated into society instead of further alienated.

    Donald from Piles Treatment

Comments are closed.