The results from California make me proud to be a progressive Democrat.
Progressive Democrats do not honk from the curb or drive in the middle of the road. They drive hardest and take chances where they see the openings.
We in California cannot end the Long War in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen by ourselves. But the Long War will never end without an alternative energy policy, and Californians can do something about that. Jerry Brown’s election and the ringing voter endorsement of our greenhouse gas reduction laws (No on 23) are a green light to a greener future. Despite paralysis in Washington, California and the Obama administration can ensure more green investment and pro-environmental regulations across the country. There is no more important opportunity for environmentalists and their peace movement allies.
But that is not all. There still will be a recount, but Kamala Harris is ahead in the race for attorney general, signaling a seismic shift towards juvenile justice and away from mass incarceration in our criminal justice policies.
A woman of color may have just taken the guns and prison keys away from the Man.
Harris is a brilliant star, no doubt, destined for great things. But the key to her apparent victory, along with Brown and Boxer, was California’s vast multicultural electorate and public fatigue towards the failed war on crimes, gangs, drugs and, frankly, inner city youth.
Harris is a politician and, as such, caved to the law enforcement lobby when she could have supported a key modification of our three strikes law. But her general views on broadening public safety to include youth opportunities, equal justice and environmental protection are a sharp challenge to prosecutors, prison guards and policing as usual.
Jerry Brown bears a main responsibility for plunging California into the mass incarceration policies that have become an albatross on the state budget. But Brown is also a pragmatist and, now safely in office, might be willing to engage in a rethink of his policies. A conversation between the governor and his fellow Jesuit, Fr. Gregory Boyle, should be encouraged as a first step towards a saner and more humane policy. (See my op-ed in the LA Times on the challenges and opportunities for Brown if he turns towards a green future and away from mass incarceration.)
Here is more background on the consequences of Brown’s law-and-order policies. He was elected in 1974 on a platform of taking away judicial discretion from judges over sentencing. At the time, there were slightly more than 20,000 inmates in the state system. Under the new law, which Brown signed, punishment instead of rehabilitation became the exclusive goal of state prison policy. Over the years, the inmate population shot up to 150,,000- 170,000 and current taxpayer costs pushing ten billion dollars annually. California inmates are jammed in dungeon-like facilities, which have been found to be “cruel and unusual punishment” by federal judges.
Nevertheless, Brown led the campaign against Prop 66 in 2004, which would have required a third strike to be serious, as opposed to pizza theft. Brown spent the final days of the campaign promoting and producing commercials against the measure, which lost narrowly, 52.7%- 47.3%. Harris, then embarking on her statewide quest, quietly opposed the reform as well.
In addition, Brown’s webpage as attorney general posts 15 or more press releases recounting raids on street gangs in every part of California, without any discussion of the mounting costs of the nation’s war on gangs – with five percent of the world’s population, America locks up nearly one-quarter of the world’s inmates.
It has been standard practice for Democrats to trade their better policy judgments in exchange for police and prison guard endorsements as election protection against “soft on crime” charges. But politics has consequences for policy, and now the consequences are coming home. With 170,000 inmates and 56,000 staff, the prison budget is devouring revenues that are desperately needed for economic development, education and the environment in California’s zero-sum budget quagmire. The higher education share of the state budget has dropped from 17% when Brown first became governor to closer to 11% today, as the college-eligible population continues growing.
People of color now represent a much larger percentage of the electorate than when Brown first ran for office, and surveys show them strongly preferring investments in jobs and training for inner city youth over spending to warehouse them in 33 state prisons.
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger once proposed a constitutional amendment that general fund spending be no more than 7% on prisons and no less than 10% on UC/CSU budgets in 2010-2011, state funds allocated to prisons were 9.5% of the California budget and only 5.7% on UC/CSU.
Will Brown and Harris, if she is elected, want to be tougher on locking people up than Arnold? That remains to be seen, but the public pressure will continue to grow.