Pubdate: Fri, 03 Jan 2003
Source: The Week Online with DRCNet (US Web)
Author: Phillip S. Smith, Editor
Forum: (California)
Bookmarks: (California) (Incarceration)


California Gov. Gray Davis (D) never met a prison-building program or 
"tough on crime" bill he didn't like, but now, faced with a $35 billion 
state budget deficit, he is being forced to consider measures that could 
begin to pare down the state's mammoth prison budget -- and free some 
prisoners. With California's budget deficit greater than those of the other 
49 states combined, Davis is finding that there are no sacred cows when it 
comes to budgets -- especially when it's a question of prisons or health 
care, prisons or education, prisons or social services.

As recently as last month, when he proposed mid-year budget cuts, Davis had 
spared the prisons, instead opting for cutting dental care for adult 
Medi-Cal clients, cost of living increases for the disabled, and child care 
subsidies for welfare graduates. Davis proposed $10.2 billion in cuts, but 
the California Department of Corrections (CDC) accounted for only 0.1% of them.

Davis said he would not imperil public safety to balance the budget. The 
"tough on crime" mantra has long been successful in California politics -- 
Republican governors Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson are past masters of the 
politics of fear -- and Gray's policies, at least, are in the pocket of the 
California prison guards' association, whose interests are self-evident and 
whose free-spending ways have made it the largest special interest campaign 
contributor in state politics in recent years. But people who aren't prison 
guards are beginning to grumble.

Advocates for health care, schools, and other threatened social services 
have started to raise a row over the sanctity of the prison budget. "The 
idea that you're going to cut 400,000 to 500,000 people from getting health 
insurance and not even examine corrections... is a little unconscionable," 
Iris Lav, deputy director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a 
nonpartisan research organization in Washington, DC, told the Sacramento 
Bee last month.

Demands for prison spending reductions are also coming from the 
legislature. State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton and San Francisco 
Assemblyman Mark Leno, both Democrats, told the San Francisco Chronicle 
last week they have ideas designed to reduce spending by freeing nonviolent 
prisoners. Leno, the incoming chairman of the Assembly Public Safety 
Committee, said he wants to discuss releasing small-time drug offenders or 
inmates locked up for petty parole violations. Burton also called for 
reforming the state's severe parole system and added that perhaps inmates 
over the age of 70 should be released -- there are 503 of them, costing the 
state $13.4 million a year to house, according to the CDC.

Lightening the heavy hand of the parole board could also result in 
substantial savings in tax dollars and human freedom. According to the CDC, 
some 54% of all parolees return to prison, but only 10% are returned for 
committing new crimes. In other words, the vast majority of parole 
violators sent back to prison are doing time not for new criminal offenses, 
but for failing to make a meeting, pass a drug test or report an address 

"Californians now have trade-offs to consider," Leno told the Chronicle. 
"Do you want to have fewer subsidized day care slots? Do you want to have 
more trauma centers? Do you want to see more seniors with their bag 
lunches, or do you want to see more people in prisons?"

Prison spending is a big target. According to the CDC 
(, corrections cost $3.9 billion 
this fiscal year and eats up almost 6% of the total budget. In addition, 
the state has spent $5.7 billion on building new prisons since the late 
1980s, with more needed by April 2004 if current trends continue. The state 
spends an average of $26,690 per inmate per year to imprison the 161,000 
people populating the California gulag - more than half of whom are 
nonviolent offenders. Persons imprisoned for drug crimes constitute 23% of 
all prisoners, according to the CDC. Simply by freeing all drug offenders, 
California could save nearly a billion dollars in prison spending this 
fiscal year alone.

But while there are signs Davis is beginning to hear the rumblings, that 
isn't likely to happen. Davis has already taken a trembling first step 
toward freeing prisoners to cut costs. He announced last week that he had 
approved a plan to give some prison camp inmates two days credit for each 
day served, thus freeing them earlier than anticipated and saving several 
million dollars. But beholden as he is to the prison guards' union, he has 
so far balked at other cost cutting measures, including shutting down San 
Quentin Prison.

Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill, the legislature's financial adviser, 
has suggested cutting the prison sentences of some nonviolent or elderly 
prisoners, saying it could save the state hundreds of millions, but 
according to the Mercury News, her proposal excludes drug offenders and 
those with "Three Strikes" sentences.

Still, after two decades of untrammeled growth in California's prisons, the 
era of corrections as a sacred cow appears to be coming to an end. Gray 
Davis has taken what for him is a historic step - actually cutting a few 
sentences - and the cries for reform of the state's over-the-top sentencing 
policies are growing louder. As appears to be the case everywhere, 
California politicians immune to pleas for social justice are responding to 
the call of the budget cutter. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake