The Problem With Gov. Schwarzenegger's New View on Prisons

A few weeks ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger surprisingly announced a shift from spending on prisons to spending on education. Part of his plan was for increased use of privatized prisons (think Corrections Corp. of America.) He received a lot of praise for his new plan.

There's a terrific op-ed in the Sacramento Bee by Michelle Alexander, former director the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California, on Schwarzenegger's failure to recognize the real problem that the state's decades of mass incarceration, particularly of minorities, have caused. [More..]

Alexander urges caution in praising the Governor's announcement:

Caution is in order – not because of what Schwarzenegger said, but rather what he didn't say. For example, he didn't say that prison sentences should be drastically reduced or that "three-strikes" laws for minor crimes should be abandoned. In fact, he said close to nothing about how spending on prisons would be funneled to schools, except to suggest that the prison system could be operated more cheaply if it were privatized.

...That announcement most certainly cheered the Corrections Corp. of America – the nation's largest private prison company. Wall Street investors would be the primary beneficiaries of any large-scale privatization effort, and there is good reason to believe that problems plaguing California's prisons will get much worse, not better, if private companies slash the amount of money spent on health care, shelter and food, without policy changes dramatically reducing the number of people behind prison walls.

And while privatization is a problem, it's not the only one, or the biggest one. The biggest one is racial disparity.

The skyrocketing incarceration rates of the past three decades have not affected all segments of California's population equally. African Americans and Latinos have been hardest hit, thanks largely to the war on drugs – a war that has targeted people of color for drug crimes, even though studies show they are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.

The uncomfortable reality we must face is that California, like the nation as a whole, has treated generations of African Americans and Latinos as largely disposable. They have been rounded up by the thousands, locked in cages, and upon release ushered into a parallel social universe in which they can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits – reminiscent of an era we supposedly left behind. Most of the people labeled felons are not murderers or dangerous criminals. They are black and brown, very poor and paying the price of a get-tough movement driven not by crime rates, but by politics – a politics that has scapegoated the most vulnerable as a means of scoring political points.

She concludes:

The subtext of Schwarzenegger's speech was that we need not worry about who's in prison or why, so long as it doesn't cost too much or interfere with the ability of middle-class university kids to get a good education. But private prisons that warehouse impoverished black and brown folks, while the relatively privileged trot off to college, are not a step in the right direction.

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    CCPOA wil never, ever sit quietly (none / 0) (#1)
    by oculus on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 12:23:32 AM EST
    while the Governor moves inmates from state correctional facilities to privately-operated institutions.

    Can he do that without (none / 0) (#2)
    by oldpro on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 01:55:42 AM EST
    the legislative assemby's permission?

    Good question. State of CA inmates (none / 0) (#3)
    by oculus on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 02:02:14 AM EST
    have been housed in privately-run facilities.  Don't know if Dept. of Corrections had to get legislative auth. first.

    And at first glance, as a Californian (none / 0) (#9)
    by cenobite on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 01:12:43 PM EST
    He intends to break the prison guards union, and he's using a budget crisis and school funding as a distraction.

    IF (and I said if) (none / 0) (#4)
    by Ben Masel on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 02:43:12 AM EST
    his intention is to release a bunch of prisoners via sentence commutation, there's no need to signal that before he's got his list ready. The step would not need legislative approval, so why let everone take shots at him before it's a done deal?

    How about Levitt's paper (none / 0) (#6)
    by diogenes on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:51:26 AM EST
    "The Effects of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence from Prison Overcrowding Litigation" in The Quarterly Journal of Economics 11, number 2, May 1996.  The claim, resurrected in Superfreakonomics, is that states where the ACLU won prison overcrowding cases were natural experiments, and overall in those states prison populations dropped by 15% after the court rulings.  Within three years, violent crime in those states increased by 10% and property crime by 5% in those states.  The control group was states with no litigation.
    Maybe Levitt put a refuted canard in his new book, but what is the refutation?

    Levitt himself isn't as certain as you are (none / 0) (#10)
    by 1980Ford on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 03:39:19 PM EST
    Levitt's analysis suggests that about 80% of the crime prevented by the incarceration of each additional prisoner is for non-violent offenses. In a recent article, he notes that "it seems quite plausible that substantial indirect costs are associated with the current scale of imprisonment," including the impact on the African American community, and that "further increases in imprisonment may be less attractive than the naïve cost benefit would suggest."11 This most recent caveat acknowledges the limited role of incarceration as a strategy to address crime, and recognizes the complexity of trying to base policy decisions solely on financial costs.

    Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship


    poverty and crime (none / 0) (#7)
    by diogenes on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:58:08 AM EST
    "We all know that some prisoners are ought to do illegal things because of too much poverty..."
    Anyone who made it into state prison (as opposed to county jail) solely for offenses consisting of shoplifting loaves of bread to feed themselves and their families should be released. Pardon them all. Once in awhile the third offense is a food theft, but you'll generally find that the other two were much more serious, not to mention all the crimes committed for which the person was neither caught nor convicted.

    California's biggest problem (none / 0) (#8)
    by Chuck0 on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 10:40:32 AM EST
    is that prison policy is completely dictated by the correctional officers union in that state. CO's in California make twice what teachers do in CA. Base salary is around $65K. With overtime, many COs make over $100K per year. That is incredible. And ridiculous. I am not anti-union, but this organization to be reigned in or possibly eliminated.

    Well, I am a californian ... (none / 0) (#11)
    by nyrias on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 04:11:36 PM EST
    and i would MUCH rather my tax dollars be spent on education than on prisons.

    Is there statistics showing the percentage of those in CA prisons that are violent offenders?

    I am all for legalization of drugs but all those convicted of a violent crime should serve out their full sentence. And for those, there is no reason why we should not locked them up via cheaper alternatives.