This week, the California Correctional Crisis Blog celebrates its first birthday. It is a good occasion to look back on the past year and the main issues we have discussed, and perhaps to offer some thoughts on what might happen in the future.
It has certainly been a dramatic year for corrections, and the main issues on our agenda were the most pressing ones: overcrowding and the medical system. These two issues became inexorably linked with each other as the year progressed. Early this year we followed on the struggles between the CDCR and the federally-appointed Receivership around issues of quality of care, and, of course, money. These struggles, and the continued deterioration of the system, led eventually to the three-judge-panel's Plata/Coleman decision, ordering population reduction as the primary means to remedy the health system. And we have seen the state's reluctance not only to comply with the order, but also to comprehend the necessity for change: appealing the order, violating its requirements, and, in the legislative arena, severe limitations on the ability to transcend party lines and slogans to provide an effective solution.
A complicating factor has been the financial crisis, which exposed the cost of relying on a mammoth correctional apparatus as the primary means to solve social problems. Hidden from the public eye, hundreds of millions of dollars are poured in through taxes paid for by Californians to imprison their fellow Californians. The exposure of the frightening impact of these expenditures has led our criminal justice system to pursue some techniques that were not in use, and were certainly not publicly propagated, since the emergence of the new law-and-order paradigm in the Nixon days. We have seen the revival of the marijuana decriminalization debate; prosecutorial prioritizing of charging; sentencing reform ideas; jurisdiction stat-juking; critique of broad parole practices; a National Crime Commission; and even, perhaps, discourse heralding a questioning of the death penalty (though, perhaps, premature in CA). While we still pay tribute to the discourse of public safety, and advocate these changes using a discourse of scarcity, this may be an opportunity--so far only partly utilized--to challenge the status quo and engage the public imagination in designing better alternatives.
We were also following various agents of change and their struggles about the appropriate models of justice. We saw the Public Defense coping with cuts, and the Community Justice Center take its first controversial steps. We witnessed an increasing reliance on technology-based non-custodial alternatives and discussed their promise and pitfalls.
During the 2008 elections, and the months that followed, we had an opportunity to examine our patchwork sentencing structure, as well as our approaches to drug crime and to victim involvement in the criminal process. These provided a lens through which the partisan politics of corrections could be examined.
We read and reported on some new, and less new, books documenting and discussing different aspects of the correctional process.
Oh, and we had a major conference at UC Hastings, in which the major actors in the political and economic drama that is CA corrections came together to discuss different aspects of the problems we face.
Finally, we occasionally glanced beyond state lines to frame the crisis in national, and sometimes international, terms, seeing the idiosyncrasies of California, but also its role within the broader American correctional malady.
The blog has given us an opportunity to reach a broad audience of parties to the correctional enterprise. We hear often, by email or by phone, from CDCR employees, inmate advocates, victim organizations, lawyers, activists, and of course the population who is most affected by the crisis--inmates and their families. You have contacted us; brought our work to the attention of the mainstream media; sent us books and materials; informed us about the realities of living affected by the California prison system; involved us in your efforts for reform; and have been honest, forthright, and generous, in sharing your experiences, even when they left you uncomfortable or pained. This blog is for you, and it would not exist without you. Thank you.
We invite you to stay with us for another year, as we continue bringing to light one of the weak and shameful links in our social chain: how we treat each other when we transgress. Please keep emailing and commenting; what we know is up to us, and understanding is the first step toward systematic, evidence-based reform.