Volume 43 Number 36

A hard look at the prison budget


OPINION Last week’s grim budget news from Sacramento reminded me of Edward Lorenz’s often-quoted maxim, according to which the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas. California’s budget, which we have consistently ignored and abused since the passage of Proposition 13, turns out not to have been limitless. And many residents, for whom our prison system had been invisible, may have found out for the first time that our correctional apparatus constitutes more than 7 percent of the state’s annual budget. Perhaps we are finally ready to become aware of the impact of our prisons on our wallets — and our lives.

Californian prisons are at nearly 200 percent capacity; 170,000 people are kept behind bars, and many more are under parole or probation supervision. The prison medical system has been declared unconstitutional by the federal courts and handed to a receiver. Among the many reasons for this catastrophe are our irrational sentencing scheme, a collage of punitive voter initiatives approved since the 1980s, and our deficient parole system, which leads 70 percent of those released back into prison for largely technical parole violations. Not only is this system inhumane and counterproductive, it’s also expensive: it costs about $40,000 dollars a year to keep a prisoner behind bars, and much more to treat aging, infirm prisoners who are in the system due to legislative constructs such as the three strikes law.

The silver lining of the budget crisis is the opportunity to rethink our social priorities and reassess how we may transform them to make the system less expensive and cumbersome. The indications of this transformation are everywhere: the resuscitated debate on marijuana legalization (and taxation); prioritizing violence and public harm over other offenses; a reinvigorated public discussion regarding the usefulness, and costs, of the death penalty; avoidance of expensive prison expansions; the national crime commission initiative, propelled by the failure of the War on Drugs; and the California Sentencing Commission Bill, which will soon come before the Assembly for a third reading.

Californians may not be as punitive as voter initiatives suggest. When informed of the existence of prison alternatives and of their costs, the public tends to choose less punitive options. Our current mentality of scarcity presents, therefore, a remarkable chance to decrease the size of our inmate population. This would lead not only to immense savings, but also to the release of many people who don’t belong behind bars. How we use this opportunity, however, depends on our ability to imagine, and implement, a new set of priorities.

We must understand that short-term, emergency measures of mass releases will be ineffective unless we use this opportunity as a catalyst to rethink our beliefs on corrections. Without a strong set of rehabilitative and reentry programs, many of those released under the new policy will return to the prison system. If we want to avoid more expenses, and a revolving prison door, we must reform and rationalize our sentencing regime to conform to sensible, fact-based principles, rather than political fads and panics.

Such measures are the flaps of the proverbial butterfly’s wings, and if we act not only swiftly, but deeply and wisely, we may be able to escape the tornado.

Hadar Aviram is associate professor of law at Hastings College of the Law and the author of the California Corrections Crisis blog, www.californiacorrectionscrisis.blogspot.com.

Editor’s Notes


› Tredmond@sfbg.com

The absolute most stunning statement of how messed up the state of California is emerged last week from the state director of finance, explaining why the proposed budget cuts fall so heavily on services for the poor. Let me quote directly from The New York Times:

"Government doesn’t provide services to rich people," Mike Genest, the state’s finance director, said on a conference call with reporters on Friday. "It doesn’t even really provide services to the middle class.

"You have to cut where the money is," he added.

Um … government doesn’t provide services to rich people? What about, say, the roads they drive on, and the airports they fly in and out of? What about the vast sums the state spends putting out fires that threaten wealthy enclaves in Southern California? What about the public education system, which trains workers for businesses? What about the entire criminal justice system, which exists to a significant extent to prevent poor people from taking rich people’s money?

Do you think Sergey Brin and Larry Page would have become Google billionaires if the Internet — developed and paid for by the government — didn’t exist?

No. Federal, state, and local governments all spend money on services for the rich. And by and large, those services don’t get cut when budgets are busted, and by and large, the rich don’t pay their fair share for the services they get — and by and large, nobody in politics talks about that when these nasty decisions get made.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s just remember that as 900,000 kids lose their health insurance and California becomes, in the words of Mayor Gavin Newsom, the first state in the industrialized world to have no welfare system at all. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Cutting services for the poor, as opposed to cutting things rich people want and need, or making them pay a tiny bit more to keep society stable, is a political choice.

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees just put out a fascinating document looking at alternatives to the governor’s cuts — including a bunch of things that can be done without the two-thirds vote required to raise taxes. There are, for example, about $2.5 billion worth of useless and wasteful tax loopholes identified by AFSCME that could be closed (hurting the rich, helping the rest of us). That would save a lot of health and welfare programs.

San Francisco has choices, too. Downtown parking fees hit wealthier people; Muni fare hikes are a tax on the poor. A congestion management fee on downtown would overwhelmingly hit wealthier commuters; cuts in public health overwhelmingly hit the poor. The Tenderloin’s Community Justice Center hurts low-income people (and helps rich tourists and the hotels scare away the homeless).

The thing that kills me is that some of us have been saying over and over — for years and years — that the city needs to develop a better tax system (which will require a public vote) to minimize these cyclical crises. And some of us have been pointing out that a public power system would generate several hundred million a year (and that private power is sucking $600 million a year out of the local economy).

Do we have to keep blundering from disaster to disaster? For how long?


How to repeal Prop. 8


EDITORIAL When the late Sup. Harvey Milk was fighting to defeat the Briggs Initiative, a statewide ballot measure that would have barred gay people from teaching in public schools, he repeatedly made the point that the more Californians met and interacted with openly gay and lesbian people, the less likely the voters would be to sanction discrimination. Mayor Gavin Newsom made the same basic point in his statement following the horrifying Supreme Court decision that legalized discrimination in this state.

"I know many of my fellow Californians may initially agree with this ruling," he said, "but I ask them to reserve final judgment until they have discussed this decision with someone who will be affected by it.

"Please talk to a lesbian or gay family member, neighbor, or coworker and ask them why equality in the eyes of the law is important to every Californian."

That ought to be the theme of the November 2010 ballot measure that seeks to overturn Proposition 8.

It’s going to be a tough, uphill battle — after all, the voters just passed Prop. 8 last fall. But the campaign against it was, almost everyone now agrees, fatally flawed — the TV ads spoke in platitudes, there was almost no use of the words "gay" or "lesbian," and, perhaps most important, no coherent, grassroots effort to convince swing voters by making connections between them and the queer community. And there was far too little outreach to black and Latino voters.

And the tide of national sentiment is turning, far faster than anyone expected. Maine and Iowa recently legalized same-sex marriage. The New York Assembly has passed a marriage equality bill and, if it clears the state Senate, the governor has promised to sign it. By the time the 2010 election rolls around, gay marriage will be sweeping the country, and California will be way behind. And, of course, every year a new group of 18-year-olds gets the right to vote — and that demographic is heavily in favor of marriage equality.

So there’s no question that Prop. 8 can be overturned — and placing the issue on the same ballot as the governor’s race will sharpen the issue, force the candidates to take a stand, and generate additional voter turnout.

This time, though, the campaign has to be much more inclusive. The soft-pedal-homosexuality-and-pretend-queers-don’t-exist approach didn’t work. The write-off-the-black-community-and-religious-voters gambit backfired. Harvey Milk was right: Gay people and their allies need to be everywhere in this next fight, and need to take the message directly to those moderate voters who are going to think differently about someone they have met and talked to than about some image the right-wing nuts have conjured up.

Straight supporters of same-sex marriage need to be deployed properly. Newsom spent much of his time during the No on 8 campaign appearing before adoring crowds in places like the Castro District, which was a waste of time; he needs to be in Walnut Creek. African American ministers like the Rev. Amos Brown ought to be visiting churches in conservative areas and trying to make inroads. Art Torres, the former chair of the state Democratic Party, came out this spring and is popular among Latino voters.

We agree with Newsom. It’s time to start this campaign, now. But this time, let’s get it right. *