Home California Progress Report Prison Officers, Crime Victims, and the Prospects of Sentencing Reform

Prison Officers, Crime Victims, and the Prospects of Sentencing Reform

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California’s correctional crisis is now the status quo. But the status quo is unsustainable. Nearly $27 billion in the red, the state simply can’t afford business as usual. The annual budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is about $10 billion (7% of the state’s total expenditures), up from $3.5 billion in 1998.  Along with being prohibitively expensive, the prison system is so overcrowded that a panel of federal judges ruled in 2009 that the state must shed approximately 40,000 inmates (the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide any day now whether the original ruling will stand).

Fiscal and judicial pressures have created a genuine opening for major sentencing reform. The prison population won’t significantly shrink (and stay down) unless the number of people sent to prison and the length of sentences are both reduced. After all, policies mandating long prison terms for an ever-growing list of crimes were primarily (though not solely) responsible for the rapid and massive growth of the correctional population.

There is a general perception among pundits and policymakers that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the prison officers’ union, is the principle obstacle to serious reform. In the 1990s, the CCPOA became an incredibly successful union and powerful interest group. It spent millions of dollars to support “law and order” politicians and policies, and earned a reputation for ruthlessness.  Soon, it was “common sense” that, if the CCPOA opposed a penal policy, that policy was likely dead on arrival—and the union opposed all policies that would substantially reduce prison sentences.

For various reasons, including a change in leadership and the need to seem like a friend of reform as it worked to secure a new contract, the CCPOA has made statements and taken positions in recent years that suggest the union may no longer be such a major roadblock.  Whereas CCPOA officials used to publicly support prison expansion and heap scorn on prisoners, the union’s current president, Mike Jimenez (who replaced the CCPOA’s original leader, Don Novey, in 2002), periodically suggests support for drawing down the prison population.  For example, in a speech at the 2007 California Democratic convention, Jimenez stated:

To borrow from Martin Luther King, Jr., as well, today I have a dream.  I have a dream that the bricks and mortar that were planned to build new prisons will instead be used to build new schools.  Today I have a dream that not one of these cells will ever be occupied by the child of a person in this room today.  Today I have a dream that an ounce of prevention will be embraced instead of a pound of cure by the California legislature and this administration.

Along with changing its rhetoric, the CCPOA has put out two “blueprints for reform” which advocate for an advisory sentencing commission, improved rehabilitative programming, additional re-entry facilities to help decrease recidivism, and shorter periods of parole for some ex-offenders.  Moreover, the union officially endorsed (but did not lobby for) legislation that would allow some offenders convicted as juveniles and serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole to possibly have their sentences reduced.

Despite these signs of a softened stance, the CCPOA’s actions question the extent of its transformation.  For example, after it began speaking about sentencing and prison reform in 2007, the CCPOA financed the opposition to Proposition 5, which was designed to shrink the prison population primarily by focusing on so-called non-violent, non-serious drug offenders. The proposition stipulated that individuals without prior records of violent or serious crimes who were convicted of drug possession would be eligible for diversion from prison to treatment.

People convicted of non-violent, non-serious crimes such as theft while under the influence of drugs also would be eligible for diversion (unless a judge decided that the person was unworthy of diversion).  And marijuana possession would become an “infraction,” earning offenders citations rather than incarceration or community sanctions such as probation. Finally, certain drug and non-violent property offenders would be able to earn additional “good time” credits for participating in programs, thereby reducing their sentences.  (The initiative also called for drastic expansion of rehabilitation services, so prisoners could access the programs that would help them earn good time credits.)  Proposition 5 was defeated.

Then, in 2008, the CCPOA backed the passage of Proposition 9, “Marcy’s Law.”  Among other things, Prop 9 made it more difficult for prisoners with life sentences to get parole and forbid the state from using early release to alleviate prison overcrowding.  And the next year, the union lobbied against a legislative proposal to implement a sentencing commission that would have had authority to change the state’s sentencing laws. The CCPOA has also consistently and successfully organized and helped finance opposition to efforts that would water down California’s Three Strikes and You’re Out law.

The CCPOA’s “transformation” becomes even more suspect when we look beyond the union itself.  In the early 1990s, the union effectively created Crime Victims United of California (CVUC), the most influential crime victims’ organization in California, if not the entire United States. (The union also helped establish another influential group, the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, but now works primarily with CVUC).  The CCPOA committed extensive resources to the development of the CVUC, providing office space, lobbying staff, attorneys, and seed money.  Harriet Salarno, president of CVUC, says forthrightly, “I could not do this without CCPOA, because we didn’t have the money to do it.”  Beyond material resources, the CCPOA also taught CVUC how to play the political game.

The union developed CVUC for strategic purposes.  This is not to say that CCPOA’s leaders do not genuinely care for and want to assist victims and their families; they do. But, CVUC helps the CCPOA achieve its goals from outside its ranks in three main ways. First, it validates the CCPOA’s public claims that prison officers are uniquely skilled professionals who work the “toughest beat in the state.”  Second, it legitimates the CCPOA’s assertions that the union serves universal purposes (rather than its individual, pecuniary interests) by supporting crime victims and bolstering public safety. Just as families of schoolchildren promote teachers and the California Teachers Association, crime victims’ advocates endorse prison officers and the CCPOA.  Third, CVUC helps the union achieve policy objectives, often providing a sympathetic face to campaigns that advance a “tough on crime” agenda.

 From its inception, CVUC has been distinctively political. In addition to providing support for victims and their families, it endorses electoral candidates, speaks at legislative and parole board hearings, lobbies legislators, and makes campaign contributions on behalf of candidates and issues.  The money CVUC spends on political causes comes from its three political action committees (PACs).  To my knowledge, CVUC is the only crime victims’ group in California with PACs, and the CCPOA funds all of its political operations.  Public records show that, since 2005, the CCPOA has provided 100% of CVUC’s PAC money.  For the sake of transparency, at the end of 2010, the Fair Political Practices Commission, a government entity responsible for enforcing campaign contribution and lobbying laws, insisted that CVUC’s main PAC change its name from “Crime Victims United Independent Expenditure Committee” to “Crime Victims United Independent Expenditure Committee Sponsored by The California Correctional Peace Officers Association.”  That way, the public would know that the prison officers’ union bankrolls CVUC’s political action.

In that political action, CVUC promotes an especially retributive brand of crime victims’ rights, which presumes that criminals and prisoners are locked in a zero-sum grudge match. Therefore, any policy that helps prisoners automatically harms victims and their families. CVUC consistently pushes for “tough on crime” laws to lengthen prison sentences and parole terms, as well as make penal facilities more austere.  Moreover, it ardently fights all attempts to reduce prison terms. For example, CVUC opposed a recent cost-saving measure to allow early parole for critically ill prisoners (some of whom are comatose).  Interestingly, the group also lobbied aggressively against the legislative proposal to allow some prisoners who were convicted as juveniles and received sentences of life without the possibility of parole to have their terms reduced.  This was the same proposal that the CCPOA nominally supported, and it died in committee.

In 2009, former Governor Schwarzenegger signed legislation to make a dent in the prison population.  The law increased the amount of “good time” credits prisoners may accrue for being discipline-free, completing education and chemical dependency programs, or working on fire crews. It provided inmates a way to shave time off their sentences. It also eliminated parole supervision for select “low-risk” ex-prisoners, decreasing the number of former offenders who could be sent back to prison for violating the terms of parole (more than half of the people admitted to California’s prisons each year are actually being re-admitted for parole violations). Given the pressure from the federal courts to reduce prison overcrowding and the dire budget situation, these provisions were quite modest.  Nevertheless, CVUC filed a lawsuit claiming the legislation violated constitutional provisions enacted under 2008’s Proposition 9, which disallowed early release as a way to ease overcrowding. CVUC’s lawsuit is ongoing.

All things considered, the CCPOA remains a major obstacle to sentencing reform and a real and lasting decrease in California’s prison population. The union has shifted its rhetoric from virulently anti-prisoner and pro-prison growth to pro-reform and has taken some public policy positions that support this progressive rhetoric. However, its other actions indicate continued opposition to serious change.  The union’s main affiliate and beneficiary, CVUC, stridently opposes all moves to shorten prison and parole terms.  CVUC claims that it is independent from the CCPOA, but it’s difficult to believe, considering the union finances CVUC’s political operation (the source of its incredible influence) and bolsters its identity as the authoritative voice of California’s victims.  As long as the CCPOA continues to work closely with and fund CVUC, its reform rhetoric will ring hollow.

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Joshua Page is an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of the new book The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California (Oxford University Press).

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