Friday, January 8, 2010

Gov. Schwarzenegger's Proposal

It's telling that Arnold has to actually try to mandate that the state spend more on higher education than on prisons. What kind of state spends more to incarcerate its people than to educate them? The US, by the way, is responsible for incarcerating one out of four of the people on this planet who are incarcerated, even though we have less than 5% of the world's population.

In the LA Times article about his January 6, 2010 speech, the reporters state that "lawmakers have been unable to trim the corrections budget for years. Voters and politicians alike have approved years of stiffer sentences and stricter rules for parolees -- driving up the prison population. The result has been a prison network bursting at the seams, with federal judges taking control of prisoners' healthcare and ordering the state to either release tens of thousands of inmates or boost prison spending by billions. Lawmakers so far have chosen to keep spending."

This is partly true and partly false. The public has been systematically misled into believing that it is making itself safer by supporting more punitive laws and policies. Survey data of the public indicate that when asked if they support alternatives to prisons and capital punishment, a surprising majority favor alternatives. But the voters aren't offered these options by public officials, so they end up choosing based on distorted information and truncated options.

While I welcome Arnold's rhetoric about education versus prisons, it would have been nice if in 2006 when people tried to repeal the most problematic portions of Three Strikes (Prop 66) Arnold had backed this. Prior to the vote those in favor of changing Three Strikes were in the majority. Arnold came out against Prop 66 and played a major role in turning the tide to defeat it. Three Strikes has proven to be extraordinarily expensive and, contrary to most people's expectations and beliefs, two-thirds of those sentenced to the third strike have been for non-violent, non-serious offenses.

From FACTS (Families to Amend California's Three Strikes), July 19, 2009:

The Justice Policy Institute estimates the costs of enforcing the Three-Strikes law between March 1994 and September 2003 was $8.1 billion. Of that amount, $4.9 billion is paying for inmates serving for nonviolent offenses.

California's prison population has increased sevenfold in the past 25 years because of America's "war on drugs". In 1980 California housed 25,000 prisoners, today it's over 175,000 and while it is appropriate to put violent offenders away for a long time, prisons are overcrowded mainly because so many marginal activities have been criminalized. If we're serious about creating a more humane society and a prison system that is not simply a graduate school in how to get away with it the next time, we need to look at reforming drug laws, the "three strikes" law, and harsh sentences for marginally harmful activities.

At a cost of $1 million to incarcerate each prisoner (more if they're elderly or sick), Californians are finally recognizing the billions for prisons is an expense the state cannot afford.

In 2004, Proposition 66 would have averted the present budget crisis by limiting felonies that triggered the second and third strike to violent or serious crimes. It would have eliminated residential burglary from the list of serious felonies that qualify as strikes (except when prosecutors prove someone was in the home at the time of the burglary). It would have also allowed prosecutors to count only one strike per prosecution instead of one strike per conviction, as current law requires, and it would have increased penalties for child molesters.

Instead of supporting Proposition 66, you stood with Henry Nicholas III to defeat Proposition 66 by alleging "over 26,000 "murderers and rapists" would be released into the community."

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