Court Decision Could Spur Prison Reform

MAY 23, 2011


Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating California state prison reductions must lead to long-needed reforms. The decision upheld a lower court ruling that from 38,000 to 46,000 must be released due to overcrowding that violated the Eight Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.”

As the majority decision noted, federal lawsuits first were taken up against the overcrowding two decades ago. So the state has had plenty of time to rectify the situation. The majority decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Californian. He also noted that the state’s budget problems will make reform difficult.

Kennedy wrote, “After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effect give absent a reduction in the prison system population.”

A big part of the problem is that California’s prisons cost almost three times as much as those in Texas. According to an April 2011 study by the federal General Accounting Office, in fiscal year 2009-10, per-capita incarceration costs for criminal aliens was $34,448; but for Texas, it was just $12,168. Arizona was $14,093 and Florida was $14,828.

Of the five states studied, only New York — with a similar liberal Democratic political culture to California’s — cost nearly as much. And New York’s cost was $29,523, still sufficiently lower than Calfiornia’s.

Prison Guards

I called the California Correctional Peace Officers Association — the prison guards union — for their reaction to the court decision. They said they didn’t have one yet. But their Web site did prominently feature a CCPOA Member Alert on their recent lucrative contract:

Last night, after our MOU was approved by the California State Assembly, it was sent to Governor Brownʼs desk for approval. Governor Brown signed the bill into law and shared spirited remarks in support and appreciation for the dangerous and important public safety service provided by Unit 6 members. He also expressed that the contract was well deserved and had been a long time coming.

But expensive contracts like these are a major reason there isn’t enough money for building new prisons and staffing them with new guards. Although the new contract now is in force, it’s hard to see how the state can meet the Supreme Court demands without cutting guards’ pay, perks and pensions. As I noted in a blog earlier this month:

This is from a brochure from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations; the job of prison guard…

has been called “the greatest entry-level job in California” — and for good reason. Our officers earn a great salary, and a retirement package you just can’t find in private industry. We even pay you to attend our academy.

Comments the Wall Street Journal:

That’s right—instead of paying more than $200,000 to attend Harvard, you could earn $3,050 a month at cadet academy.

It gets better.

Training only takes four months, and upon graduating you can look forward to a job with great health, dental and vision benefits and a starting base salary between $45,288 and $65,364. By comparison, Harvard grads can expect to earn $49,897 fresh out of college and $124,759 after 20 years.

As a California prison guard, you can make six figures in overtime and bonuses alone. While Harvard-educated lawyers and consultants often have to work long hours with little recompense besides Chinese take-out, prison guards receive time-and-a-half whenever they work more than 40 hours a week. One sergeant with a base salary of $81,683 collected $114,334 in overtime and $8,648 in bonuses last year, and he’s not even the highest paid.

The whole mess with the prisons, bringing down a federal mandate, can be boiled down to excessive pay for the prison guards. As the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday, “The union spent $7 million on last year’s elections, and of the 107 candidates it endorsed, 104 were elected.” That included Gov. Brown.

Releasing Non-Violent Drug Offenders

But aside from the immense cost of the prison guards’ contract, a simple way meet most the Supreme Court’s mandate would be to release all non-violent drug offenders. Alternet writes:

The cost of corrections in California is staggering. Gov. Brown’s proposed Fiscal Year 2011-2012 budget funds the prison system to the tune of $9.19 billion, nearly 7.2 percent of the entire state budget. And the war on drugs is responsible for a hefty portion of it.

The state prison system holds a whopping 144,000 inmates, including more than 28,000 drug offenders and more than 1,500 marijuana offenders. Of those 28,000 drug offenders, 9,000 are there for simple drug possession at a cost of $450 million a year, or about $4.5 billion over the past decade. That figure doesn’t include the cost of re-incarcerating parole violators who have been returned to prison for administrative violations, such as failing drug tests, so the actual cost of drug law enforcement to the prison system is even higher.

Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML, a marijuana law reform group, told me, “About 20 percent of California prison inmates are there for drug offenses that didn’t exist in my grandfather’s generation. Drug offenses are a modern creation.”

Tax Increases?

Predictably, Democrats are using the court decision as another excuse for increasing taxes. Given Republicans’ obsession with “law and order,” they might make some headway. And as my colleague Steven Greenhut noted, most GOP members, such as former Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, are eager to ingratiate themselves with the police, fire and guards’ unions.

The court decision might give a couple of Republicans the excuse they needed to back tax hikes. Only two elephants are needed in each house of the Legislature to join the majority Democrats to raise taxes, or to put a tax-increase measure before voters.

Other Measures

But as we have seen, no tax increase is needed. If drug decriminalization is unpalatable, then there other measures that could be taken: privatization, moving more prisoners to other states, and Gov. Brown’s proposal to send some prisoners to local jails.

It’s ironic that, in order to keep robbers and other criminals behind bars, the automatic response of Steinberg and others is to rob taxpayers even more.

But that’s California for you.








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