Friday, December 21, 2007

Money More Than Justice

The breaking news alert from the Sacramento Bee was rather startling: "Schwartzenegger proposes to release 22,000 prisoners." Well, now, that sure got my attention last night and then again this morning. Whatever is our governor up to now? The full story was enlightening. California is in the midst of a budgetary crisis. Again. So the governor is busy finding ways to save money. Here's one of the proposals under consideration:

In what may be the largest early release of inmates in United States history, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration is proposing to open the prison gates next year to some 22,000 low-risk offenders.

According to details of a budget proposal made available to The Bee, the administration will ask the Legislature to authorize the release of certain non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders who have less than 20 months to go on their terms.

The proposal would cut the prison population by 22,159 inmates and save the cash-strapped state $256 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and more than $780 million through June 30, 2010. Besides reducing the inmate population, the proposal also calls for a reduction in more than 4,000 prison jobs, most of which would involve correctional officers.

While the article didn't elucidate just what "non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders" would be released, and probably couldn't because the governor is clearly just floating an idea, I think it reasonable to assume that the crimes involved are probably for such crimes as drug possession. In other words, the fears of the 'lawnorder' and victims' rights groups probably won't actually be realized. Besides, the plan also has a safeguard of sorts built into it.

Under "summary" parole, offenders would remain on supervised release and would still be subject to searches by local law enforcement at any time, but they would not be returned to prison on technical violations. It would take a new crime prosecuted by local law enforcement officials to return an offender to prison.

So, what's the deal? Well, I think a couple of things are at work here. The most obvious one is that the governor is faced with a budget shortfall in the billions of dollars. That doesn't look good for a Republican governor with ambition. He has decreed across the board cuts in all state agencies, and this plan must look like a relatively painless way to cut millions. At the same time, the proposal is a chance to slap down the correctional officers' union, one of the most powerful groups in the state. While I have no objection to slapping those yahoos around, this kind of 'gotcha' politics is repugnant insofar as it messes with the lives of others. The other and less obvious factor in play is that the state is once again in federal court over the overcrowded and deplorable conditions of its prisons.

The important fact to keep in mind is that this proposal is ultimately only about the money. If the governor were really interested in a reasonable prison system there are several things he could do, chief among them the revisiting of the sentencing system which slaps a lot of people in prison for holding crack. He could also consider developing a prison system which takes rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners into cosideration so that they had a better chance of making it on the outside.

Apparently that's not important to Mr. Schwarzenegger. The money, however, is.

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