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:
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.