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Calif.'s Economic Meltdown May Free Non-Violent Offenders

California’s newly sworn-in legislature convened Dec. 10 to tackle the state’s budget crisis. It’s a big job. California’s deficit is set to exceed $28 billion by June 2010. Threatening to add still billions more to the shortfall, a three-judge panel may soon order an expensive overhaul of the dangerously overcrowded prison system.

The good news? California’s fiscal meltdown – and looming prison takeover – is forcing our representatives to face up to prison overspending. State leadership, which foolishly opposed serious DPA-sponsored reform when it was on the November ballot, is now running with it.

Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, would have safely reduced incarceration spending by $1 billion each year (and spent that small fortune on proven recidivism-reduction measures instead: treatment and rehabilitation). According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office (LAO), Prop. 5 would have also reduced California’s prison construction spending by at least $2.5 billion.

During the Prop. 5 campaign, California politicians (and wannabes) rushed to align with the prison industrial complex: from Dianne Feinstein to Jerry Brown. So eager to identify as "tough on crime," these politicos have turned their back on consideration of even serious policy reform proposals – like Prop. 5.

But just days after the election – and after standing with four former governors to oppose Prop. 5 – Governor Schwarzenegger asked state legislators to do just that when he introduced Prop. 5-like parole reforms as part of his budget solution. The LAO raised the ante, proposing more reforms familiar to Prop. 5 proponents, including sentencing changes, parole reductions and good-time credits.

This about-face proves what we already knew – that the prison industrial complex’s defeat of Prop. 5 was truly a pyrrhic victory. Now, having wasted the opportunity to support reform on the November ballot, the legislature needs to be held accountable for pushing prison spending reform through the legislative process.

Let’s wish the incoming legislature – with 30 percent new membership – more luck than the last.



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