California Prisons, Post-Partisanship, and the Death of Democracy

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Many pieces of legislation were working their way through the Senate or Assembly to address the prison “crisis”. They addressed sentencing reform, which could slow the flow of prisoners into the system, parole reform, which could prevent technical parole revocations and reduce the number of prisoners, compassionate release of terminally ill prisoners and so forth. There were measures to create sentencing commissions, to close the youth prisons, to fully fund Proposition 36, as voters intended. All of these measures could have an immediate impact on overcrowding. There were public hearings and individual votes on actual proposals. All those measures now sit in limbo while the building boom moves full steam ahead.

One of the pieces of misinformation that appears in story after story covering this issue is that the prison system hasn’t been expanded for a period of time. What time is that? Between 1852 and 1982 over 100 years– California built 12 prisons. Since 1982 we have been engaged in the “largest prison building program in the history of the world” (Rudman and Berthelsen, 1991), adding 24 more prisons. In that same time period the rate of incarceration rose steadily (from 293/100,000 in 1993, to 696/100,000 in 2001(See Beyond Prisons, 2006). But without hearings on what will now be the largest single prison expansion in the history of the world, actual information and deliberation is excluded.

Governor Schwarzenegger was quoted as saying, with regard to healthcare and the fact that no legislator has agreed to carry his bill on healthcare, “That’s not where the action is.” In other words a bill is not needed. We make deals. We make trade-offs. Was the prison deal a trade-off for other deals to come?

Vastly expanding the failed prison system will do nothing to make us safer, and adopting laws without open processes will surely make us less secure. A government of secrecy quickly becomes a government of tyranny.

Laura Magnani is Assistant Regional Director for Justice for the American Friends Service Committee and a co-author of Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System. This op-ed was submitted on behalf of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a statewide coalition of 40 organizations committed to reducing prison spending by reducing the number of people in prison and the number of prisons in the state.

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