Monday, July 12, 2010

What has Arnold Done for Corrections?

Jennifer Steinhauer's recent piece in the New York Times sees Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial tenure as a compromise in the spirit of independence and bipartisanism, which eventually ended up pleasing no one. Among other aspects of his tenure, Steinhauer mentions that "The most interesting — though least sexy —of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s political and policy machinations has been in prison reform." She goes on to provide the following analysis:

When he was first elected, the governor vowed to fix the state’s prison system, which was overcrowded and expensive to run, and saddled with a health system so poor it was put under federal receivership. The governor promised to void the contracts of the powerful correction officers’ union, reduce costs and emphasize rehabilitation programs. After battling with public employee unions for his first two years in office, he accomplished little.

But toward the end of his term, over fierce opposition by the guards’ union and the threat of a veto override by Republicans and Democrats, he pushed through a large prison building plan and two changes that reduced overcrowding: moving juveniles out of prison into local facilities and pulling some nonviolent offenders out of the churn of the parole system.

“For the left, he was able to keep juveniles and nonviolent offenders out of prisons,” said Joan Petersilia, a law professor at Stanford who chaired several panels on prisons, “and what went to the right was he never wavered on three strikes or releasing sex offenders or violent offenders.”

My sense is that analyzing correctional policy in right/left terms is inaccurate and unhelpful. While the topic is undoubtedly a political one, and we do often see a party split in state votes on correctional policy, the concern about public safety, the fear of crime, and the punitive recourse, tend to transcend party lines. As many of my colleagues often say: No politician, on the right OR on the left, wants to be seen as "soft on crime."

In this light, i think a better analysis of Schwarzenegger's dealings with the correctional apparatus should have included his interesting response to the Plata/Coleman panel population reduction order. On one hand, the Governor immediately sprang to action defending CDCR and its machinations. The State has vigorously opposed the order just as it opposed the initiatives of the Receiver, continuously attempting to thwart his efforts and remove him from office. On the other hand, in the heels of the Plata/Coleman decision, Schwarzenegger himself proposed a population reduction plan that was less ambitious but pursued some similar reduction mechanisms: Good work credits, a reduction in parole, and increased use of GPS monitoring.

A Macchiavellistic analysis of this move could be that, given the existence of a gubernatorial reduction plan, the Supreme Court (which is now hearing Plata/Coleman on the merits) might be accepting the state's appeal, noting that the state makes efforts to decarcerate on its own, without need of federal interference. But I tend to think the answer is simpler: Schwarzenegger hopped on the decarceration wagon not because of shrewd political considerations or a commitment to bipartisanship, but because there is no other choice. The budget slice allotted to corrections was simply too big to be sustainable. Public opinion slowly drifted away from punitivism once it became clear that our correctional policies directly impacted our wallets. The center could not--and still cannot--hold, and Schwarzenegger understood that as a practical, not a political, matter. His out-of-the-box ideas, such as housing inmates in Mexico, were an attempt to resolve a pressing problem that stood--and stand--in the way of balancing our state's checkbook.

The correctional crisis was not Schwarzenegger's doing, and his awakening came way too late in his gubernatorial career. Our options for this office are not exciting; we've looked at both Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman's respective correctional policies. I leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide which is the lesser evil.

Props to Simon Grivet for the NYT link.

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