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August 25, 2009 -- Truthout (US)

Fixing California's Prisons?

By Seth Sandronsky, Truthout

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


Is it a famine and a feast? Some Californians might wonder. The state has a record budget deficit and a prisoner surplus. To help close a $24 billion gap in spending and tax revenues for the 2009 to 2010 budget year, state lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are addressing California's $10 billion, 33-prison system, operating at double its design capacity now.

The governor's plan slices prison spending by $1.2 billion and reduces the current prisoner population by 27,000 (from 168,000) over the next 10 months and releases 10,000 more offenders in 2010 to 2011. The State Legislature, which agreed with Schwarzenegger in July to deep spending cuts in health and schools to close a $24 billion budget hole, is deliberating how to implement his prison plan.

Against this backdrop, a large uprising along race lines (black and Latino) at the overcrowded Chino State Prison in San Bernardino County broke out on August 8, resulting in scores of injuries. Four days earlier, a panel of three federal judges had ordered California to reduce its state prison population by 43,000 people over the next two years.

Back in Sacramento on August 20, by a 21 to 19 majority vote, the state Senate passed ABX3 14, its package of prison reform proposals, cutting $524.5 million from the current budget. "The most important question about the impact of these proposals is on public safety," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) in a statement.

The Senate plan converts a few nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors (petty theft with a prior, writing bogus check and receiving stolen property). This change allows some offenders to serve time in county jails instead of in state prisons. ABX3 14 also changes parole procedures for select prisoners at the end of their sentences, including those over the age of 60 and excluding high-risk offenders. Most radical to the status quo is the Senate's proposal to create a new 13-member sentencing commission, largely governor-appointed. The commission would recommend changes to current sentencing guidelines, which the Legislature could vote against to bar them from being put into practice.

Sumayyah Waheed Esq., policy director for Books Not Bars of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, has a critical view of such legislative changes. "The package that passed the Senate does not even amount to half of the $1.2 billion cut that has been made to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and includes cuts to rehabilitative programs," she said. "This will only add to the failures and dangers of a system with a 70 percent recidivism rate."

In the meantime, the state Assembly disagrees with the Senate's prison plan to cut spending and overcrowding. Crucially, Assembly Republicans claim greater strength on public safety than that of Democrats. The political specter of released offenders committing violent crimes haunts the dozen Assembly Democrats running for future offices. One of those open offices is for state attorney general, the highest law enforcement office in California.

Assemblyman Ted Gaines (R-Roseville), in the Rocklin and Roseville Today, raises fears that the Senate's proposal to reduce the prison population by allowing select prisoners to serve out the final 12 months of their sentences in home detention threatens the public with a crime wave. He writes: "Consider reports by the nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and other groups who study prison populations that found that the average prisoner on early release committed at least 13 new crimes before being taken back into custody."

Warren Robak of RAND disputes Gaines's claim. Robak, in a reply to Gaines in Rocklin and Roseville Today, holds that such a report on lawbreaking after early release from prison is possibly from 1970s research, and "contains no calculation regarding the crimes that might be committed following early release of prisoners."

Two days before the state Legislature convened to address prison reform, a coalition of the ACLU of Northern California, Books Not Bars, the Drug Policy Alliance and Families to Amend California's Three Strikes proposed a "people's budget fix" at the state Capitol. State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), and Assemblypersons Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) and Jim Beall Jr. (D-San Jose) spoke to about 100 people in favor of reducing state prison overcrowding and spending, and improving public safety.

"What we hope to do is get key legislative support for an alternative, modified version of the governor's prison proposal," said Zachary Norris, director of the Books Not Bars program. Before entering the Capitol, Natasha Minkler, death penalty policy director for the ACLUNC, and Annette Summers of FACTS spoke with coalition members in part on the research-based weaknesses of the state's current penal system. The coalition spent the afternoon meeting with 20 Democratic lawmakers and their staff members.

The "people's budget fix" coalition's proposals to save $1.2 billion in prison spending range from converting dozens of nonviolent offenses to misdemeanors, handling petty drug offenses at the local level, maintaining recidivism-reduction programs, replacing the death penalty with life without parole and reforming the "three strikes" law.

According to California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, between 1984 to 1985 and 2008 to 2009, California's general fund spending for higher education rose from $4.1 billion to $10.2 billion. General fund spending for corrections jumped from $1 billion to $10 billion in the same 24-year period.

The shape of the California Assembly's prison plan likely will come into clearer view by the end of August. "Our target remains a responsible approach that will achieve our public safety and budgetary goals, and allow us to prevent the wholesale release of prisoners by federal judges," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) in a statement.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Contact him at

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