California's Assembly today voted out a weakened version of the plan for reducing prison spending and population in California that the Senate approved earlier this month and which Governor Schwarzenegger has said he would sign. The differences are not large in terms of dollars (200 million short of the overall 1.2 billion cut promised in July), and parole reforms adopted by both houses may help the state meet the population cap described by the Federal courts. [Read the Sacbee coverage by Jim Sanders]. More worrisome is the success of the law enforcement lobby (correctional officers, prosecutors, some police and sheriffs) in terrifying Assembly Democrats (who have the votes to carry reform with no Republican help) against supporting a sentencing commission, or further effort to encourage alternatives to incarceration. No real reform in this state is possible unless we revisit the incoherent and fragmented sentencing system that has grown up since 1976. The current system, which was designed by no one, allows prosecutors freedom to spend the state's money on future imprisonment costs at will, while providing little or no power for the state to exercise judgment about who goes to prison for how long, and no incentives for counties to solve local problems at home.
The Federal courts are not our problem. They are only an alarm seeking to awaken us to our desperate need to revisit our public safety strategy. For over three decades we have acted as if prison = public safety, no matter who goes there, for how long, or to what end. As our fellow citizens in LA choke from the smoke of the spreading wildfire in the mountains, we must confront the emerging new threats that confront all Californians from the catastrophic combination of environmental risks and infrastructure failure (remember Katrina, 5 years ago this week!). Unless we unlock the resources locked in our golden fortresses, we simply cannot pay for the public safety we need. We have built prisons while ignoring police, sheriffs, first responders, probation officers, mental health workers, child welfare workers (who might well have discovered the stealthy kidnapper Philip Garrido if neighbors had called them rather than the police to complain of mistreated or neglected children). All of those resources can be moved around flexibly to deal with emerging threats of all kinds, criminal, environmental, or infrastructural (or all three). Prisons can do nothing to help protect us against these threats.
Again, the courts are an alarm clock ringing, and our political leaders, if given the chance, will hit the slumber button. Don't let them!