— Want elected officials to represent your views? Look no further than the Legislature. For years, it has mirrored the electorate on crime and punishment.
On no issue have Capitol politicians been more reflective of the people than prisons.
The timid being led by the blind.
The voters and lawmakers — not all, but most — have demanded that California
lock up the bad guys and keep 'em there for a very long time. But they haven't wanted to pay for it.
The inevitable result is acute overcrowding, with inmates stacked virtually like cordwood in some lockups. About 173,000 are stashed in prisons designed for 100,000.
There's triple bunking. Roughly 17,000 convicts are housed in gyms, dayrooms and hallways, leaving little room for rehabilitation, education, job training, exercise and drug treatment. No wonder the recidivism rate is 70%, twice the national average.
There'll be 17,000 more sardined into the facilities within five years at the current rate.
Fine, one might say. They're criminals. Punishment isn't supposed to be comfy.
The federal courts don't see it that way. A federal judge has put the state on notice: Relieve the overcrowding by June or a cap could be imposed on the number of inmates. And the cap could be much lower than 173,000. That would mean opening cell doors for thousands of convicts.
Federal courts already have declared California
's sorry healthcare for prisoners — medical, mental and dental — to be unconstitutional and have essentially taken charge.
On Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he'll ship roughly 6,000 prisoners out of state to private lockups. But that's only a partial solution, and it's sure to be challenged in court.
So the governor and Legislature face a real and rising crisis, requiring more urgent action than anything else before them.
Here's a two-step example of the dilemma politicians face, often brought on by themselves:
• In 2004, the voters — urged on by Schwarzenegger and the GOP — chose to keep a tough "three strikes and you're out" sentencing law, ensuring that three-time losers would be locked up for at least 25 years and perhaps life. Voters rejected an initiative to reduce the penalty for third strikes that weren't "serious or violent."
The "three strikes" law, passed by both the voters and a voter-wary Legislature in 1994, has produced much longer sentences for repeat offenders. Tougher sentencing — not just because of "three strikes," but also other popular laws — has led to prison overcrowding. It's also commonly cited as a reason for California
's reduced crime rate, along with aging of the population.
• But voters don't want to dig deeper to keep the crooks behind bars, as illustrated by a statewide poll last month.
The survey by the Public Policy Institute of California
found that voters overwhelmingly favor spending any extra money Sacramento
generates on schools or reducing the state debt, but 57% oppose plopping it into prisons. Only 38% favor it.
Similarly, majorities think the state should spend more money on education, healthcare and infrastructure.
But only one-third believe more dollars should go to prisons. About the same number, in fact, think less
should be spent on the lockups.
"People have a hard time feeling compassion for prisoners and spending more money to create better conditions for them," says the pollster, Mark Baldassare. "They just think that shouldn't be a priority."
The state is spending $9.2 billion this fiscal year on prisons — its third-most-costly program — but that isn't enough to keep up with the longer sentences.
Sen. Michael Machado, a San Joaquin County Democrat, says: "Governors and the Legislature and the public have turned their backs on the prison system for so long that it essentially now is dysfunctional."
Machado, chairman of a prison budget subcommittee, partly blames "one-upmanship" by legislators incessantly trying to jack up penalties. "They get a press release and a campaign piece."
"We need to depoliticize sentencing," asserts Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee.
Not so fast, say Republicans, who have benefited politically from being "tough on crime."
Indeed, Assembly Republicans have scheduled a photo-op today at Folsom Prison near Sacramento
to outline their "prison reform priorities." It'll be the kickoff of a statewide prisons tour — the GOP equivalent of the Democrats' camera-generating classroom visits.
"It's important to go where the issue is," says Assembly GOP Leader Micha
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