Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

True Lies: Good Rhetoric on Prison Spending Is not a Plan for Action

By Jonathan Simon

Most of what Governor Schwarzenegger has said during his six years in office about California's bloated carceral state is true. Most of his proposals to move us beyond this obvious disaster for our polity amount to lies.

I have nothing against rhetoric, in fact I make my living producing and analyzing it (with apologies to the professionals in the rhetoric department). Indeed, I had great hopes that this action hero Governor might really use his clear rhetorical skills to tell Californians that we have too much fear embodied in our penal code and prison policies.

    He called the parole system "broken."

    He described our prisons as involved in "warehousing people" (a phrase used by Marxist criminologists in my days in graduate school).

  • He renamed our prison agency the "Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation" (a bit repetitive, but the right direction).
  • And just the other day he spoke about the shame of a state that spends more on prisons than higher education (as if he was just arriving in the state).

    Sadly, beyond renaming the boxes, Governor Schwarzenegger's policy moves have mostly been non-serious, including this proposal to use our constitution to favor higher education spending over prisons.

      His initial approach to the impending court ordered population caps was to call for building space for another 50,000 prison beds (under the premise that they would provide reentry and rehabilitative services). AB900 became law, but has never been implemented.

      After initially calling for a new culture of rehabilitation within the prison service, he failed to back up his reform Secretaries of Correction, Rod Hickman and Jeannie Woodford, who were cut to pieces by resistance from the bureaucracy and from the powerful union and left to resign. Six years into his administration, his current corrections chief admitted that fewer than half of all prisoners leaving a California prison have had even a day of rehabilitative programming, let alone been rehabilitated.

      Now, he uses his final state of the state address to put forward a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee a bigger share of the state revenue to higher education than to state prisons. Putting aside the dubiousness of adding yet another amendment to our Rube Goldberg designed state constitution, the governors proposal is actually a call to privatize prisons, and thus reduce the cost per prisoner, rather than to reduce mass imprisonment itself. The proposal has no chance of being adopted in that form and should not be.

      The Governor's latest budget proposal is more of the same. The plan calls for cutting prison spending by 1.2 billion, but with more than 800 million of it coming out court ordered spending on prison medical facilities, something that will not happen.

      In the end the Schwarzenegger administration has left Californians at an impasse on prisons. We appear to be done with the era when California governors campaigned on their commitment to locking up ever more Californians regardless of the consequences for higher education or any other state priority, in the style of George Deukmeijian, Pete Wilson, and Gray Davis. But one searches the horizon in vain for the appearance of state leaders willing to talk honestly with Californians about the need to rethink our commitment to mass incarceration.