Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More Resistance to the Plan to Reduce "Wobbler" Offenses to Misdemeanors

The proposal to prosecute "wobbler" offenses as misdemeanors, and thus reduce prison population (or, at least, juke the stats so that it appears that prison population is reduced) is encountering opposition not only from local jails. This time, the resistance comes from the Santa Cruz District Attorney, Bob Lee. The CDCR disagrees. Central Coast reports:

Examples of the penal code sections that would be revised, if state legislators agree, include fraud, forgery, grand theft, identity theft, auto theft, owning a "chop shop," destruction of utility lines, making a false bomb report and possession of methamphetamine, Lee said.

"This amounts to sacrificing public safety to put the fiscal house in order and that is extremely bad policy," Lee said.

State prison officials say the proposal and two others would ease overcrowding by sending an estimated 19,000 to jail instead of prison. The current prison population is about 167,000 and they estimate the change would shave $400 million from $10 billion prison budget.

"I think most people would agree that public safety is the No. 1 role of government," said Seth Unger, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "But in a time of very limited resources, we have to focus those resources on higher risk offenders."

This controversy is illustrative of the very different ways in which politicians and managers view corrections. For more on this stuff, I strongly recommend Katherine Beckett's Making Crime Pay, which tracks down correctional discourse since the late 1960s. In the book, Beckett traces two discourses that emerged as a response to the rehabilitative discourse, which had been proven a failure: the political discourse, which was punitive in nature, and which impacted public opinion quite dramatically, and the managerial discourse, which was much more low-key and relied on risk assessment and actuarial techniques to manage the increasing inmate and parolee population. It is not surprising that politicians and managers speak quite differently about crime; their interests and perspectives differ, and they seek legitimacy in different ways. While politicians require high profile messages to impact public opinion, managers have to cope directly with the day-to-day costs and burdens of managing the system.

The current crisis may bring some of these costs and burdens back to the politicians. A few weeks ago we reported on the downscaling of prosecutions in Contra Costa County. More of this may be happening elsewhere, and perhaps changing the chasm between politicians and managers. However, the differences in perspective are still alive.

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