Friday, May 15, 2009

The Budget Crisis and Mass Imprisonment in California

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.


Robert Canning said...

Another issue with selling San Quentin is that the law needs to be changed to allow condemned inmates to be housed elsewhere. Since 1937 when the method of execution changed from hanging to gas, the only place in the state where executions can be carried out is San Quentin. Given the difficulty of getting the legislature to do anything constructive these days, I bet getting them to shift the execution is a long shot

Liferswifey said...

Again, thank you for your articles.

T. Sevchuk

Liferswifey said...

It would be interesting to see if Arnold follows through with any of his "plans" on prisons and prisoners. My husband would love to be deported back to belarus. I doubt that will happen though. He is not a USA citizen, but he did come here legally. Our daughter is first generation American on his side of the family.

If only we could just get rid of the death penalty, amend or get rid of the three strikes law, and mandatory sentencing laws that incarcerate way too many for way too long we might just get a head in California? I believe that this is all very corrupt and that prisoner and prisoners are merely a business now, rather than a device against crime. It is quite profitable for many I have found. I don't think that this kind of business will go away without a fight.

little bit said...

The Governor thinks stealing from the schools and mental health will correct California's financial problems.

I will not vote yes on any issue on the ballot. Only IF yes. All others NO.

Long term Punishment in the prisons are bankrupting California. Prisons are a corporate non-producing industry, and it must stop.

loveheals said...

The state wastes millions of dollars on corrections and it is not spent on the inmates, it is spent on inflated salaries, unnecessary overtime for corrections officials, medical costs for services often never performed in a system that is its own worst enemy. And lets not forget about court costs that have cost millions of millions of dollars that the Governor has racked up to fight the release that the federal judges have been calling for that HE is now calling for. So why did he waste our money? Why are we wasting money to fight parole that should be given as our law and our courts have prescribed? I will not vote for anymore of our money to be wasted, make the money that you already bleed us for work. If there isn’t enough then release the ailed, geriatric and lifers who have been denied parole arbitrarily (and who by the way have the lowest recidivism rate!) It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out, The Governor knew it before he was Governor but lost his way once he was corrupted by Sacramento! Enough is Enough!!