Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told a news conference yesterday that in order to help close California's mammoth budget gap (15 billion if the ballot initiatives pass on Tuesday, 21 billion if they fail) he is considering commuting the sentences of thousands of undocumented prisoners and turning them over to the federal government for deportation. He would also send thousands of other "low risk" prisoners to county jails (read Matthew Yi, John Wildermuth, and Wyatt Buchanan reporting in the SFChron). A day earlier the Governor included San Quentin prison on a list of properties that the state might sell to raise cash (read Michael Rothfeld's reporting in the LATimes).
These suggestions may be intended mainly to help pass the ballot initiatives. If that is the Governator's game, it is a sad and cynical recourse to the voters' well known tendency in this state to be stampeded into bad governance by crime fear. A recourse that will reinforce our commitment to mass imprisonment.
If these suggestions are serious, they offer a mixed bag, some of which could really help us move away from mass imprisonment (and liberate more budget space for infrastructure and education among other priorities). A quick set of responses
*Deport undocumented prisoners?
It depends of course on why we put them in prison to begin with. If we are talking about a violent criminal with a track record of assaults on intimates or strangers, we might want to consider that there is a real chance they will return to California sooner then later. If we are talking about a drug or property crime, a period of incarceration followed by deportation (which is itself a serious punishment) is quite possibly plenty of sanction.
*Send low risk prisoners to county jail?
This is a winner. Jails offer a very promising way to deliver punishment without doing as much damage to an inmates' ties to the community and at considerably lower cost. Some counties will need help expanding or remodeling county jails, but many have been rebuilt as a result of seismic threats and court cases over the last couple of decades. Most criminologists used to assume that prisons were better than jails because they offered more rehabilitation, greater comfort for long stays, and were controlled by a more professionalized state work force. But the transformation of California's state prisons into a vast human warehousing system has undermined all of these assumptions. Especially if we can wean ourselves from using long sentences, short stays in clean, safe, and well managed county jails might be an excellent way to hit the reset button in the lives of Californian's whose criminal behavior has become a threat to their family or neighbors, especially if followed up by strong county probation services.
*Sell San Quentin?
The old prison should long ago have been replaced but there is a real loss to closing it. SQ is one of the only prisons in the state proximate to a great city and surrounded by numerous educational, mental health, and drug treatment services, as well as thousands of volunteers willing to come into the prison and provide all of the above. That is why it is the only prison in the state that arguably has a rehabilitative culture. If SQ is closed the state should commit itself to building two or three small prisons in the Bay Area and LA to make up for the loss of this proximity.