Saturday, January 9, 2010

Governor True Lies

The biggest disappointment in my six years back in California has a name, Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he rousted Gray Davis in the recall I was amused (Davis was as stalwart a supporter of the penal state in California as it ever had, I was glad to see him go). When he settled prison lawsuits, called the parole system broken, said we had to stop warehousing people, and renamed the prison system the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, I got excited. With California's epic prison condition lawsuit bearing down on the state, and a governor who understood that mass incarceration was hurting the state, a major shift seemed to be in the offing. Smaller turns have happened in states like Michigan, New York, and even Texas. May be, with an action hero at its helm, my Golden state was about to do an even bigger one.

Six years later we have a prison system that is marginally smaller (crime is down as well) but even more expensive, just as ineffective at delivering rehabilitation, and with no solution in sight. Instead of working with the courts, the governator has gone for every rhetorical anti-federal court trope in the Jim Crow play book. Still, sucker for rhetoric that I am, I was stirred by his final state of the state address in which he called for a constitutional amendment to place prison spending under higher education spending. As I noted in my previous post, the premise behind this promise, that prison costs could be reduced rather than prison populations shrunk, was flawed, but the vision was the right one for beginning a public conversation about the state's priorities.

Now comes his proposed budget. Maybe all such documents are political, but that doesn't mean they are phony. If its prison spending provision is any clue, this one is phony through and through (read the analysis by Wyatt Buchanan and Marisa Lagos in the SFChron). The Governor promises a $1.2 Billion dollar cut in prison spending, but $811 million of that comes out of prison health care spending directed by the federal court's receiver in the Plata case, a cut that the federal court could simply reverse if it ever had to (and remember the court orders on health conditions stand whether or not the current population cap is overturned).

In a year Arnold Schwarzenegger will be gone (he won't have to move since he never left Venice Beach). He will almost certainly be replaced by someone with just as little commitment to fixing our toxic incarceration problem, but probably not one that will make big phony promises to fix it and in this mean season, for me at least, that is an improvement.

[cross posted at prawfsblawg]

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