Governor Edmund "Jerry" Brown re-entered office in 2010 (her had served as governor from 1975-1983) with a ten-point lead ahead of Ebay CEO Meg Whitman, a pro-choice and now pro-gay marriage Republican who had hoped that her business savvy could help turn California around. After millions of campaign dollars for press, radio, and television ads (including a very winning commercial showing Bill Clinton accuse Jerry Brown of trying to undo Prop 13), Whitman still could not win. Brown actually got the worse sentence, in retrospect. Incarcerated in Sacramento with liberal Democratic legislators ready to riot if they cannot spend more taxpayer dollars, with public sector unions (including the vocal and powerful prison guards union), pension problems with structural deficits, Governor Brown must fall to sleep at night wondering why someone did not shank him before he decided to step back into the governor's mansion.
The most looming threat facing the governor this year, however, has nothing to do with spending, taxes, or the bureaucracies that strangle California's capacity to recovery and retain the growing exodus of residents. The biggest issue is California's prison overpopulation, which has become tantamount to "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Supreme Court. Resisting any dangers to public safety (as well as potential business investment), Governor Brown submitted another Supreme Court appeal to prevent the forced federal order requiring that the state of California release 10,000 inmates by year's end from the Golden State's overcrowded prisons. The Court demurred, and the prisoners must be released.
The prison system and its overcrowding are a disgraceful symbol of the essential problems locking up economic recovery in California.
Why are so many Californians behind bars, to begin with?
Governor Brown owns some of the blame. In his 1970s "Moonbeam" phase, Brown supported mandated sentencing for all cases, thus removing from judges the discretion to reduce sentences or even opt for probation and community service in more complicated cases (a first-time, youthful offender, for example, or straitened circumstance which take a man off the path of the straight and narrow). The controversial tenure of first female California Supreme Court Justice (also Chief Justice) Rose Bird , a Jerry Brown appointee, highlighted the public's frustration with a perception of government permitting rampant criminality. Moreover, Bird's staunch (and to critics personal and unprofessional) opposition to the death penalty was undermining deterrence. She also struck down the "use a gun, go to jail" enhancements. In 1986, she became the first recalled California Supreme Court Justice.
A tough-on-crime mandate in the 1980s and 1990s stirred voters and lawmakers to enact stricter sentencing. The progressive prison politics of the 1970s (with overly lenient sentences from liberal judges) disturbed voted. The initiative process only added to the overpopulation problem. With the tragic kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas, voters signaled their support for a three strikes law, which would incarcerate felony offenders for three times the sentence if convicted of a second strike, followed by a term of twenty-five to life for a third. Recidivism rates have remained high in California, as rehabilitation programs have been cut, not just because of budget shortfalls, but also the voters' conviction that rehab does not work. No matter how many people get locked up, they have to come out again. With no training, with no skills, 65% of parolees return to prison.
Tougher law, tougher attitudes about crime, and the tough union presence has increased the number of prisons. There's a great deal of money to divvy out with private contracts, and unions representing prison employees see nothing but profits, and easy politicians who will comply. The prison population exploded to 163,000 in 2006, yet because of court-ordered realignment, has diminished to 144,000. Still, the federal order requires that prison operate only at 137.5% of capacity (about 110,000). Overcrowding will still persist.
What can be done in the short-run as well as the long-run to prevent California's prison from overcrowding?
California constructed more prisons in surplus days. Because of voter resistance to new prison construction, plus a lingering recession, realignment to county jails and early release of non-violent offenders have eased overcrowding. Unlike other supermajority Democratic states like Rhode Island or Illinois, the dangers of tax-and-spend statism have a more lethal face in California, where tough loves require high taxes, yet voters are tired of paying for them.
Like many progressive (i.e. blue and bankrupt) states, California overcriminalizes and underprepares, panders to public employee associations and pilfers the private citizens. A reduction in penalties for non-violent crimes would reduce the number of inmates. Decriminalizing low-level controlled substances would provide a revenue source as well as reduce incarcerations. Fundamental reforms which would restrict the power of prison unions, like paycheck protection and lobby inhibition, would free up legislators to serve their state, and not those special interests.
From government waste to union collusion, the state of California can find no better symbol of its symptomatic distress than the prison system. With the threat of rising crime rates and a hastening exodus of California residents, plus the unaltered budget and spending problems, Governor Brown is locked up because of early release.