Calif. governor proposes prison reforms

New prison reform proposals by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have drawn mixed reviews from justice advocates.

Signaling a shift in state prison policies that have warehoused tens of thousands of inmates in giant prisons, often in remote areas, Schwarzenegger is urging in this year’s proposed budget that many youth and women be moved to smaller institutions closer to their homes. He is calling for “re-entry centers” to serve thousands of men in the months before and after their release. Schwarzenegger is also proposing a commission to recommend changes in sentencing guidelines.

At the same time, in an immediate move to relieve critical overcrowding, the governor plans to transfer thousands of prisoners to facilities in other states, with or without their consent.

Advocates for justice reform point out that the proposals are based on spending billions of dollars to create thousands of new prison beds. They say far-reaching sentencing reform and investment in communities are needed to fundamentally change a system which for 30 years has focused on punishment, and now incarcerates 174,000 inmates in facilities built to hold 100,000.

“That they’re thinking of doing something different is great because it opens up the discussion,” said Jakada Imani, campaign director for Books Not Bars at the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Imani said “the strongest possible sentencing commission” needs to push to cut the length of sentences and the number of prison beds and bring people back to their communities.

A 1994 “three strikes” state ballot measure mandated long sentences for repeated felony convictions. Even beyond those affected by that law, he said, many people are serving “draconian” sentences for offenses that really should be handled through treatment and services.

“For me, a lot of this boils down to race and class,” Imani said.

While incarcerating an adult in California costs $35,000 a year, he added, people don’t want to spend comparable sums on education. “We think there’s a better way forward,” he said. “It’s really about investing in people in the front end, so people aren’t incarcerated for infractions that are clearly a call for help.”

Dorsey Nunn, program director at the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, also emphasized sentencing reform and prevention. “Have you noticed that everyone’s solution is more prison beds?” he asked. “Instead of real community-based solutions,” he added, “they have this idea: let’s hold them in another mini-prison.”

Nunn cautioned against expecting that current prison administrators, who have worked for decades with a mission of punishment, can deal effectively with rehabilitation.

“I guess it’s easier to put people into prison than to spend money on refurbishing our dilapidated neighborhoods and giving people jobs,” Nunn said. “They could have a real jobs program with the kind of money they’re spending. They call this public safety, but it doesn’t make anybody safe. It’s hard to tell youngsters, ‘Don’t sell dope,’ when there aren’t alternatives for them.”

Meanwhile, state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) has introduced two bills aimed at sentencing reform. The first, SB 40, specifically authorizes judges to use their discretion in imposing a shorter, medium or longer term based on the circumstances of the case. The second, SB 110, would deal with sentencing in a more fundamental way than the governor’s advisory body. It would create a balanced, nonpartisan and independently staffed state sentencing commission which would collect and examine sentencing and corrections data, develop statewide sentencing and corrections policies, and develop uniform, consistent sentencing practices.

mbechtel @ pww.org