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New Opportunities for Real Justice in Calif. Prison Supreme Court Ruling

The Supreme Court's order that California fix its overcrowded prisons offers opportunities for correcting inequalities. But playing musical chairs with inmates won't work.
 
 
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The May 23 Supreme Court decision ordering California to reduce the dangerous overcrowding of its prisons has left many people confused. Despite the best efforts of right-wing Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito to stir up panic about “happy-go-lucky felons” roaming the streets, it is not yet clear that the decision will do anything but move the legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to do what should have done years ago.

California’s prison system is by any measure a massive failure. People released from prison return to custody at twice the national average, most for violations of parole rules rather than new convictions. A system that once was the world leader in education and counseling has seen budgets for those programs – essential to successful re-entry to society – slashed year after year. Spending on prisons has grown from 2 percent of the state’s general fund 30 years ago, to 5 percent a decade ago to 10 percent today, draining much-needed dollars from essential health and human services, and from what had been the greatest public university system in the world.

When Justice Alito warned of the “premature release of 46,000 criminals,” he stretched the truth past the breaking point. Matthew Cate, secretary of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said, “Our goal is to not release inmates at all,” which one hopes is a slip of the tongue, because the fact is that most of those sentenced to time in prison in fact are released, often before they've served the amount of time stated in their sentences. All prisons use "credits" that shorten sentences for those who complete counseling and education courses, serve on fire crews and maintain good disciplinary records. The "credits" system is an essential part of prison management, rewarding those who work towards successful re-entry.

Alito and Scalia – and the media and politicians who are spreading panic in their wake –  play on a long history of fear-mongering and race-baiting,  echoing voices whose tough-on-crime message has provided a transparent cover for attacking low-income communities of color. Under the guise of “fighting crime,” as Michelle Alexander and others have shown, many of the gains of the civil rights era have been rolled back, fostering the endless expansion of prisons, draining both funds and legitimacy from crucial social services and public education.

In January, Gov. Brown released a plan, still lacking in details, to “re-align” the criminal justice system. He wants those convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sex crimes to do time in county jails rather than state prisons and estimates his scheme would reduce the prison population by over 30,000. He hopes to raise funds to pay for re-alignment by extending taxes and fees raised temporarily in a previous administration -- a decision that will have to go before the state’s voters. We hope that the governor and his allies, who have worked for years to produce the political will to generate new desperately needed revenues for the state, will not sacrifice those who have been caught up in the criminal justice system by running a campaign that depends on reinforcing the fear of crime, but it is too easy to imagine a "Willie Horton"-style campaign, this time one in which Democrats threaten voters with the release of prisoners unless taxes are increased to expand the prison and jail system and keep them behind bars.

There are so few details on how Brown’s re-alignment scheme would work that it is hard to judge its potential effectiveness. One can imagine the state borrowing another $7.7 billion to expand county jails and tens of thousands of people serving time at the county level rather than in state prisons. How exactly would simply shifting custodial responsibility from the state to the equally cash-strapped counties improve things? Most of the state’s county jails are as crowded as the state prisons, have worse health care and less programming and do all that with less oversight.

Whether tens of thousands of new jail cells are built or not, simply moving people from state prison to county jails replicates the problems at the heart of the Plata and Coleman lawsuits that led to the Supreme Court decision. If we can’t provide constitutionally adequate conditions now in our prisons and jails, expanding either system will certainly make matters worse. When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Or one could imagine that instead of expanding jails, the state flowed funds through counties into alternatives to incarceration and community-run (rather than Corrections-run) re-entry facilities and other services. What if we had drug counselors and violence prevention programs in urban schools rather than cops and metal detectors?

If re-alignment is nothing but shifting people from prisons to jails, it is exactly the sort of budgetary and political sleight of hand that the governor promised us he wouldn’t use.  If Brown’s recent budget is any indicator, his intentions aren’t good. He proposes cutting half a billion dollars from In-Home Supportive Services,  $1.5 billion from Medi-Cal that pays for medical services for the state’s poorest residents, $1.1 billion from public higher education while increasing spending on prisons.

With or without re-alignment, there are dozens of policy changes the state could implement that have been proven successful in other states in reducing the prison population, saving money and increasing public safety. And yes, some but not all of them involve “early release” such as the release of the terminally ill or geriatric prisoners. Californians United for a Responsible Budget has compiled a list of policy options in the Budget for Humanity and in 50 Ways to Reduce the Number of People in Prison in California that can be downloaded here

The Supreme Court’s decision on prison overcrowding is a great opportunity for California. It provides political cover for those legislators who are afraid of being soft on crime -- meaning too friendly to poor people of color. This is a moment -- one that won’t last long -- in which we can turn around 30 years of terrible failed policy. We can turn our priorities away from policing and prison and towards programs that promote healthy, stable, prosperous – and that’s right – safer neighborhoods across California. We can re-invent our state, making California a beacon that offers opportunities for all its residents.

 
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