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      Senate Leader Hancock Defends Court Prison Decision

      State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley)The bipartisan politics of law-and-order is a domestic mirror of the militarization of American foreign policy, with education, economic development and domestic empowerment the losers. The U.S. leads all other countries in the world in mass incarceration while few Americans know the facts. In recent years, the public has been changing in the direction of rehabilitation, jobs for inner-city youth, and innovative gang intervention programs in places like Los Angeles. The machinery of criminal justice, however, continues to expand while the budget for everything else declines. After 20 years of court battles by inmates represented by the Prison Law Office, however, a brave federal judge has prevailed against the powerful prison guards’ union and the combined power of Democratic and Republican political leaders in California. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that the California prison system violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

      The well-reasoned decision met with furious denunciations by right-wing justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia, the latter saying the decision was “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” Clearly a renewed Republican effort to exploit public fear to promote the War on Crime is underway.

      So where are the Democrats? Will they fight back? Recently, Sen. Loni Hancock, chair of the Sacramento public safety committee, toured gang intervention programs in Los Angeles to explore the need for positive alternatives. She published this defense of the Supreme Court decision immediately after it came down: 

      California prison system reform is long overdue

      By Loni Hancock

      The U.S. Supreme Court decision that California's prisons have caused "needless suffering and death" is an indictment we can no longer ignore. Reform of the California prison system is long overdue.

      Let me be frank: Our prison system is an expensive failure. It is a threat to both the public safety and the financial well-being of California. It costs $49,000 a year to keep a person locked up in a California prison - almost seven times what we spend on each child in our public schools - yet California is getting a disappointing return on our huge investment of tax dollars in corrections.

      Our corrections spending is:

      -- Resulting in the highest recidivism rate in the nation. About 60 percent of the people released from prison are re-incarcerated within three years, with more than half put behind bars again for a parole violation, not for committing a new crime. The average recidivism rate for the other states is about 40 percent. A high recidivism rate is one of the primary causes of the overcrowding the Supreme Court called indecent and unconstitutional.

      -- Paying for graying prisoners. For example, sending an 80-year old prisoner for kidney dialysis in an ambulance with two prison guards (often being paid overtime), costs between $80,000 and $100,000 a year. Last year the Legislature established a medical parole program, yet to date, not one prisoner has been released due to management issues at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

      -- Taking state funds away from education and rehabilitation programs that extensive research shows significantly reduce criminal behavior and recidivism rates.

      Report after report has identified what is wrong. What is now needed to fix it is political will, public understanding and follow-through.

      Other states are doing better. We can learn from them; we could have and should have done many of the things Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing in his state budget long ago. Now the Supreme Court has told us we have no choice.

      Gov. Brown's public safety plan will redirect tax dollars to local governments and communities and move more prisoners into local jails, allowing the state to reduce its prison population without releasing the most violent criminals. At the local level, law enforcement and parole officials can more effectively and more directly alter criminal behavior though programs that have been proven effective.

      This plan will not only reduce prison overcrowding and achieve a constitutional and humane level of medical and mental health treatment in our state prisons, but it will lower prison costs and improve public safety.

      Right now, we're not tough on crime; we're tough on the taxpayer. Every dollar we spend on prisons drains money from our ability to have community-oriented police officers on our streets, more job training, better education - investments that would truly lead to safer communities.

      Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, is the chair of the state Senate Public Safety Committee.

      This article appeared on page A - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

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      Reader Comments (3)

      Right on - I could not have articulated better the facts, the harsh reality and the power behind this kind of message...thank you for this article - we are addicted to incarceration in this country it is time for people to realize this - it is not just an issue of budget and money - the fall out is throwing hundreds of lives away for low level and non violent crimes - there are a multitude of better solutions especially for young offenders.

      May 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Baxter

      Jerry Brown is for the prison system he has went so far as to give the guards a huge raise and also propose to build more prisons. As far as his education policy well that went out the door by laying off all the teachers and cutting vital school programs, I guess his thinking is keep the kids undereducated so that they will become future inmates of his prisons he plans to build and give his guard buddies job security.Also on releasing the prisons as ordered by the Supreme Cout he dosen't plan to do that ether with fearmongering he wants to keep them in prison in out of state prisons at the cost of more tax payers money, but then again why would he be dumb enough to let there (his and the guard union)cash cow walk out the door??????

      May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Contreras

      It's pretty sad that the California Public School System is on the losing end of Jerry Browns budget balancing. It's to bad he thinks more of California Prison Guard's then he does of the children of this state getting a good education. I thought his job as governor was to do whats best for the state not just a selected few. The state of California is wasting money keeping nonviolent offender's behind bar's that could be going towards more useful project's in this state. The people that we put in charge of this state need to start doing the job's they were elected to do and that's run this state so that everybody that lives here benefits.

      May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChuck Ludwig
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