by Robert Cruickshank / Calitics / May 23, 2011
I suppose someone should write about [Monday’]s 5-4 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata, where the court ruled that California must release 33,000 prisoners to relieve overcrowding in state prisons. So I’ll take a shot at it.
The ruling is basically the Supreme Court calling bullshit on 30 years of “law and order” politics in California. Since George Deukmejian became governor in 1982 – and enabled, it should be noted, by stiffer sentences Jerry Brown approved the first time he was governor in the 1970s – California has gone on a prison-building binge. Nearly 25 new prisons were built in the last 30 years. In contrast, only 3 CSU campuses were opened (two of which, CSUCI and CSU Monterey Bay, were reuses of existing facilities) and only 1 new UC campus, Merced, was built. This is despite the fact that the cost of building prisons and colleges is about the same, the fact that prison guards make more money than most professors, and the fact that students at least pay for their room and board, whereas prisoners don’t. Oh, and the fact that educating is preferable to jailing them.
California built all these prisons and kept passing tougher and tougher sentencing laws, most of which were absurd or unnecessarily harsh. But California didn’t seem to realize you actually have to pay for the costs of operating all those prisons. And as prisoners age, their health care needs increase, and you have to pay for those things too.
But California legislators thought they could have it both ways – they could score points with a late 20th century electorate by filling the prisons, and score points with the same electorate by not paying to maintain those prisons or care for the prisoners. This was an untenable situation, and it has finally blown up in Sacramento’s face.
Legislators may complain about mass release of prisoners, but they have had plenty of time to avoid doing so, and at every turn have chosen to ignore the underlying problems. The Supreme Court has finally, and rightly, said that this situation is nonsense and cannot continue.
Now a mass release doesn’t have to happen. There are still alternatives. California could actually do some sensible things to deal with the issue. First off, they could stop adding to the overcrowding by finally passing some sentencing reform. They could start by legalizing marijuana – 47% of voters indicated their support for it by voting for Prop 19 last year. Eventually, and soon, legalization will become a majority position. The state could simply speed that up by a couple years and save money in the process.
California could also help end the cycle of recidivism by actually funding parole and rehabilitation programs. Once someone leaves prison, it would make sense for them to not have to return. Investing in programs to get ex-cons back into society and ensure they stay out of trouble is smart – and it frees resources to ensure that parole officers can do a better job tracking people likely to reoffend.
Jerry Brown appears to be learning his lesson. He used today’s ruling to call for tax increase (and can I stop for a moment and point out how awesome it is that finally, Democrats are using moments of crisis to advance a progressive agenda?). That’s a necessary part of the answer.
But it’s incomplete unless Brown adopts some sort of sentencing reform. He needs to recognize his error, that the increased sentences and mandatory minimums of the 1970s were an unwise act of political expediency and need to be replaced with something more sensible. It would be good if the Legislature followed that path too.
The Supreme Court has given California the chance to do something sensible on prisons for the first time in many decades. Let’s hope Sacramento follows through.