A few weeks ago, we saw a rise of government employees demonstrating with apparent passion to protest that severe cuts in social programs will lead to starvation on the streets and wholesale misery. This might not be too far from the truth.
One employee had the impulse to shout, “Don’t you understand? The money isn’t there any more! Wake up and look at the big picture!”
The big picture is that our state is clearly going through its toughest times since the Great Depression. Some would even argue that we are worse off now than then.
One has a similar impulse when viewing legislative Republicans digging in their heels and refusing to accept the most unpretentious of prison and parole reform suggestions.
Let’s take a look at our current prison system. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, California has the highest percentage of its residents in prison compared with all other states. Besides a budget crisis, we face the possibility of prisons being taken over by federal judges because our prison population is now at about 181 percent of design capacity, and federal judges want a plan to reduce that to about 137.5 percent — by the middle of this month.
I’m not in favor of federal judges dictating state prison policies that would be better decided by the democratic process. But there has long been recognition, even among the most avid law-and-order advocates in the Legislature, that the cost of the state’s prison system has gone beyond what California can afford. California spends $10 billion a year on prisons and has the highest recidivism rate in the country. Clearly, there is something wrong with this picture.
Also, if we look at the rest of the nation, other states have reduced their prison populations recently without seeing increases in crime. The state of New York reduced its prison population and watched violent crime fall by 63 percent. Even notoriously tough-on-crime Texas enacted prison reform that allowed it to cancel plans to build three new prisons while improving treatment for low-level drug offenders.
The reform Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Senate approved was modest. It would have reduced the prison population by 37,000 over two years by placing some prisoners under home confinement, a tested procedure.
No violent offenders would have been released.
Prisoners would have gotten time off their sentences for completing rehabilitation programs or doing community service such as fighting fires, and the threshold at which a theft would rise from a misdemeanor to a felony would have been increased.
A sentencing commission would have been formed to undertake a study and suggest sentencing reforms.
These reforms would have gone a long way toward getting the $1.2 billion in savings the Legislature already approved back in June. Instead of discussing the issues amicably, elected Republicans indulged in irresponsible scare tactics. Jeff Miller, R-Corona, compared these modest reforms to setting off a nuclear bomb. John Anderson, R-San Diego, talked of a “state-sanctioned jailbreak in my backyard.”
In my opinion, such distortion combined with petulance is beyond frivolity. It’s no wonder our state is in such a fiscal mess.
• Al Medeiros-Contreras is an 18-year Tracy resident and a teacher at Monte Vista Middle School. He’s among a select group of local Town Crier columnists in the Tracy Press.