This post originally appeared at Speak Out California
How do you reconcile a conservative philosophy that says government is bad and taxes should be cut, and at the same time advocates policies that put lots and lots of people in jail for all kinds of things? Well, you can’t.
The original idea for California’s Three Strikes law was sound: most violence is committed by a very few people and if you can identify and imprison those people, you can make the rest of us much, much safer. But the conservatives managed to turn this sound idea into an initiative that invites prosecutors to decide to prosecute people under this law for any serious crime, violent or not, and technical or not, as long as they have two priors. So people who, for example, committed a crime as a child, then “copped a plea” to avoid risking a serious conviction thirty years prior, can now be sent to prison for life.
As a result, today California has more than 170,000 people in prisons designed to hold about half as many. One out of every five prisoners in California is serving a life sentence. In California defendants have received, for example, a life sentence for stealing a piece of pizza, a life sentence for stealing three tracksuits, a life sentence for stealing a 50-cent pack of doughnuts, a life sentence for possessing .03 grams of drugs, a life sentence for stalking and a life sentence for stealing golf clubs. But when you put so many people in prisons that have their budgets cut year after year what you can’t get is sufficient medical care or sufficient living space.
So a federal court has taken a look at California’s policies of putting more and more people into jail for longer and longer sentences for more and more things, while at the same time cutting budgets for medical care. The court found that this constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment. From the article,
“California’s prison system is operating at 190 percent of its design capacity of 79,828 inmates, and the judges said the state must devise an inmate reduction plan within 45 days, after which a remedial order will be issued.
. . . “The convergence of tough-on-crime policies and an unwillingness to expend the necessary funds to support the population growth has brought California’s prisons to the breaking point,” the judges said.”
At Calitics David Dayen writes,
This is a policy failure driven by a political failure, a cowardly series of actions that arises from a broken system of government. … politicians have played on people’s fears for 30 years and, faced with the tragedy they created, delayed and procrastinated until it became so torturous that the courts had to step in. From the three-strikes law to the 1,000 sentencing laws passed by the Legislature, all increasing sentences, nobody comes out looking good in this failure of leadership.
Given the fiscal mess our state is in now is the time for appropriate reform of all institutions. Let’s make it right, let’s make it work and let’s make it just. That is a progressive approach.