The old ‘tough on crime’ is tough on budgets

I co-authored a story in last Friday’s Tribune about how “tough on crime” – a phrase always subject to interpretation, but well-worn enough in modern politics almost to be considered cliché – is in a state of flux as fiscal conservatives start to say that locking them up and throwing away the key doesn’t make sense anymore.

Today, I see more evidence that this is so, and more strange bedfellows as a result. Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, Bush Administration Education Secretary Rod Paige and former American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene will join NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous on Thursday to launch a campaign to influence state budgets and federal policy in order to reduce incarceration.

“We need to be ‘smart on crime’ rather than ‘tough on crime’ and address soaring incarceration rates in this country,” Jealous said in a news release. “Failing schools, college tuition hikes and shrinking state education budgets are narrowing the promise of education for young people all across the country. Meanwhile, allocations for our incarceration system continue to increase, sending our youth the wrong message about their future.”

Thursday’s rollout of the NAACP’s report entitled “Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate” will take place at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a pair of bills into law yesterday that he says will fundamentally change California’s correctional system to halt the costly and inefficient “revolving door” of low-level offenders and parole violators through state prisons.

“For too long, the state’s prison system has been a revolving door for lower-level offenders and parole violators who are released within months—often before they are even transferred out of a reception center,” Brown said in his AB 109 signing message. “Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation, and impedes local law enforcement supervision.”

AB 109 changes the law to realign certain responsibilities for lower level offenders, adult parolees and juvenile offenders from state to local jurisdictions; the governor’s office says it will give local law enforcement the right and the ability to manage offenders in smarter and cost-effective ways. It won’t go into effect until a community corrections grant program is created by statute and funding is appropriated. “I will not sign any legislation that would seek to implement this legislation without the necessary funding,” Brown said.

No strange bedfellows here, however: GOP lawmakers have opposed Brown’s effort to secure funding for this realignment. “In the coming weeks, and for as long as it takes, I will vigorously pursue my plan to balance the state’s budget and prevent reductions to public safety through a constitutional guarantee,” Brown said.

Brown’s office was careful to note that when AB 109 is implemented, no inmates currently in state prison will be released early; all felons sent to state prison will continue to serve their entire sentence; all felons who are convicted of a serious or violent offense — including sex offenders and child molesters — will still go to state prison; and felons who are not eligible for state prison can serve their sentence at the local level.

UPDATE @ 1:47 P.M.: Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chairman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, underscored his caucus’ opposition to this bill with a news release today.

“Governor Brown signed AB 109 after sunset yesterday the so-called Public Safety bill, which is everything but that. It was appropriate that he chose to sign this abominable legislation as dark descended on California.

“This legislation turns California’s Criminal Justice System profoundly, in favor of criminals, and unarguably places all of us and our families at vastly greater risk to become victims of crime.

“Upwards of 68,000 un-rehabilitated, unremorseful criminals will be in our communities, largely unsupervised, without even bare minimum rehabilitative opportunities and greatly diminished, if any, consequences for their continued victimization of Californians.

“The governor signed the bill even though there is no funding to pay local government for the burden being dumped on them.

“It would appear to be a cynical ploy to coerce Legislators and the people of California to support tax increases. In fact, AB109 is now the most compelling reason to oppose these taxes – starving this beast of a bill before it’s unleashed.

“I urge all Californians to speak loudly and long against this ill-conceived travesty of justice.”

But prison-reform advocates aren’t crazy about the bill either.

“This plan is a shell game that would simply shift corrections costs from the state to the counties without addressing the real problem: California is locking up too many people for low-level offenses for too long,” Allen Hopper, police practices director with the ACLU of Northern California, said in a news release. “The massive cost of incarceration is robbing the people of California of vitally needed services, including education and healthcare. What we need is real sentencing reform, such as shortening the sentences for simple possession drug crimes. It’s time for California to stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars incarcerating people who pose no threat to public safety.”

“This plan would allow people to be locked up in local jails for up to three years, triple the current limit. Research consistently shows that longer sentences do not produce better outcomes. In fact, shorter sentences coupled with re-entry and prevention tactics are both more effective and more cost-effective,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director in Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We’re talking about people convicted of low-level offenses, like drug possession, prostitution and petty theft, often related to a drug problem. But the plan doesn’t include a dime for drug treatment or mental health care. In fact, the governor has proposed reducing funds for those services.”

“Any California corrections reform must include sentencing reform,” said Kris Lev-Twombly, director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “A felony conviction is a life-long sentence that should not be applied to low-level offenses. No matter how old the conviction, people with a felony on their record will face significantly diminished employment opportunities and much lower lifetime earnings. They may also be prohibited from accessing student loans, food stamps and other public assistance. This works against individual, family and community wellbeing and public safety.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    “Gov. Jerry Brown signed a pair of bills into law yesterday that he says will fundamentally change California’s correctional system to halt the costly and inefficient “revolving door” of low-level offenders and parole violators through state prisons.”

    And if you believe that, I have a couple or really nice bridges I’d like to show you!

  • John W

    Re: #1

    And the CCOA says, “but we like repeat customers and full prisons.”

  • RR, Uninvited Columnist

    Jive Jerry said in his Oakland incarnation that low-level offenders, minor drugs hustlers, regarded jail time as part of doing business. They received regular meals, medical attention and the leisure denied them outside the walls. The NAACP does itself no favors by lobbying on behalf of the “criminal community.” The street-corner hood is usually not a direct threat to the middle class folks but isn’t necessarily cherished by the neighborhoods in which they “work.”

  • John W

    Re: #3

    “The street-corner hood is usually not a direct threat to the middle class folks but isn’t necessarily cherished by the neighborhoods in which they work.”

    Hadn’t thought about it in those terms before. It’s a good point.