Thursday, June 4, 2015

Should California "Talk Its Walk" About Corrections?

Over the weekend, at the Law and Society Association meeting in Seattle, I learned from colleagues that California is largely responsible for the 6 percent decline in U.S. incarceration. Three large-scale reforms are responsible for this contribution: the Schwarzenegger-era SB xxx 18, which provided good-time credits and reformed parole; the Brown-era Criminal Justice Public Safety Realignment, which shifted groups of low-level felons from prisons to jails and allowed for mandatory supervision and split sentences; and, most recently, Prop 47, which shifted several low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

Given the overall effect of these reforms not only on California prisons, but on the U.S. prison population as a whole, you'd expect California to take pride in its role as decarceration pioneer. But that would only be if you were unfamiliar with California and its neopopulist, polarized political culture. Instead, these reforms were justified as responses to the budgetary crisis; politicians did not openly acknowledge their connection to the decision in Plata v. Schwarzenegger, later Brown v. Plata; and they were justified as small-scale reforms and jurisdictional shifts, with at least the architects of Realignment proclaiming "no early releases". Contrast this to the proclamations from red states about prison closures and "returns on investment" that I review in Cheap on Crime, and ask yourselves--wouldn't it be better if California boasted more about its contribution to decarceration?

I'm trying to think about the relationship between rhetoric and practices, and am wondering whether the fact that California is controlled by a Democrat legislature means that Republicans here don't have to sound bipartisan as they do elsewhere (such as, for example, in the federal government). I'm also wondering why gubernatorial candidates--Jerry Brown, now in his fourth term--still espouse, at least in name, law-and-order politics and think this is a good idea. I find this modest rhetoric puzzling and am curious to hear your thoughts.

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