Memo To Arnold: Educate, Don't Incarcerate

"Education is my passion," California governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger says, and one of the 10 steps by which he proposes to turn California around is to "send more money to the classroom." At the same time, he is determined to spend less. To reach these goals, he should adopt the mantra, "Educate, don't incarcerate!"

For three years, Governor Davis has met the budget crisis by proposing deep cuts in education and increases in corrections. Spending this year for K-12 education is down by $180 per pupil, and higher education by almost $1 billion; at the same time college students pay 30 percent more in fees. Davis has also cut academic and vocational training for prisoners while increasing guards' salaries. Davis continued building the controversial Delano prison and nearly 1,000 new death row cells.

Polls indicate that the majority of Californians want Davis' priorities reversed. Schwarzenegger has the opportunity to save money and begin to restore Californians' badly tarnished pride in offering first-class education.

Education is the most effective crime-prevention tool yet discovered, and Schwarzenegger seems to know it. Unlike Davis, he is no slave to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. If he is really beholden to no one, Schwarzenegger can afford to do the right thing. He has said he'll roll back the huge salary increase Davis offered the state's most powerful union.

While defeating Davis and checking the union's power grab, Schwarzenegger can also begin to undo the extraordinary damage they have wrought together in California's criminal justice system. He can save money by checking both prison construction and the swelling prison population, the largest in the country.

Schwarzenegger's support of Prop. 36, which mandates treatment instead of incarceration for minor drug offenders, should make him consider an obvious next step: shortening the terms of prisoners incarcerated under harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws account for the sharp increase in women prisoners. Shortening their terms would save millions now and untold billions in their children's generation.

Still more millions can be saved by checking the epidemic use of technical parole violations -- which sent 70,000 people back inside in 2001. The governor-elect can let parole boards, paralyzed by Davis, do their jobs by paroling rehabilitated men and women who have done their time.

Schwarzenegger has said that he believes that California's Three Strikes law has proven an excellent deterrent to violent crime. But he should repudiate Davis' cynical veto of a bill proposing to study the law's effectiveness and take a hard look at studies by Franklin Zimring and the Sentencing Project, which show that the law has failed to deter crime.

If he cares about alternatives to violence, he should visit the effective Resolve to Stop the Violence Program created by Sheriff Michael Hennessy in the San Francisco County Jail. This program puts men arrested for violent acts into round-the-clock education and treatment, with remarkable success.

Schwarzenegger can reverse the false economy that has robbed prisoners of the means to turn themselves around -- rehabilitative education. If he is grateful to California for all it gave him, he should support a wide range of educational programs behind bars, including the impressive but depleted Arts-in-Corrections program. Education reduces recidivism more dramatically than any other measure.

Finally, the governor-elect supports the death penalty. He would do well to reflect on the assertion of Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking," that every human being is more than the worst thing he or she has ever done. He must know that the death penalty has never been a deterrent, it is subject to disastrous error, and its cost is colossal.

California has had the dubious distinction of leading the country in prison construction and in perfecting the inhumane and punitive supermax prisons. A truly independent governor can make California a proud national leader in spearheading alternatives to incarceration, the reform of sentencing laws, a true parole process and moratoriums on prison building and on the death penalty. By so doing he can save enough money to make good on his promises to rescue education.

Bell Gale Chevigny is chair of the PEN Prison Writing Committee and editor of 'Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing' (Arcade, 1999).

Education Not Incarceration, a coalition of teachers, students, and parents, will launch teach-ins leading to a statewide day of action on November 19.


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