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Governor Jerry Brown: Can he support restorative justice?

January 11, 2011

There are many reasons for this but one is that Brown is a pragmatic politician. He supports what works and tends to dismiss what doesn’t. He is willing to explore new ways of solving difficult problems. Former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to “blow up the boxes,” a promise many thought in part referred to California’s entrenched prison system, but Jerry Brown is one who really has the capacity and the will to do just that. Never has there been more need than to scrap what we have and start over. California desperately needs systemic reform of its justice system. It will take a strong, visionary leader to make it happen.  

The prison overcrowding in California (at 200% capacity in its prisons) is one of the worst problems Brown will confront, apart from the staggering budget deficit running as high as $28 billion. The prison crisis in California is one of the toughest to solve for many reasons. After years of denial the state is not only faced with this huge, bloated prison system but also with federal law suits and worse based issues related to overcrowding and the state’s inability to provide decent, humane health care for its prisoners. But what must this new governor consider?

When I lobbied in the California Legislature in the mid-90s the Legislature passed and the governor at the time, Pete Wilson, signed a community corrections bill. This legislation provided a structure needed in the state system to allow for the diversion of nonviolent offenders into community corrections where offenders would serve their time outside of the state prison system but in ways that held them accountable incorporating restorative justice principles. Community service programs, restitution to victims, and victim offender mediation programming, electronic monitoring and other sanctions were a part of this statutory change. Community corrections is intended for nonviolent offenders. According the Legislative Analyst Office (2006) 50% of the some 172, 000 are nonviolent offenders, roughly half serving time for property crime and drug related offenses.  Sixty three percent of the inmates serving time in prison in California are first time offenders.  Can we do this differently in ways that stresses offender accountability, making the punishment fit the crime, and is cost effective?  Yes.   It currently costs the state $48,000 to house one inmate. Community corrections is much less costly and allow those prison cells to be used for dangerous, violent offenders.  

I met Jerry Brown in person in 2006 when I ran for Congress in the 4th congressional district.  As I had a photo taken with him at the state party convention, I introduced myself to him telling him I worked in the field of restorative justice. His comment, “I support that!”  Brown has a chance to show how he does support smart on crime solutions in California. Some might think that restorative justice is synonymous with victim offender mediation programming alone.  Perhaps that is Brown’s understanding; I don’t know. But what I hope the new governor sees is that the vision that drives restorative justice supports deep systemic reform of our broken justice system (in our state and in the U.S. and even abroad). Restorative justice is driven by a foundational premise which puts the needs of victims first, holds offenders accountable in ways that restore victims and communities, as much as possible, and assures that offenders learn from their actions so not to become repeat offenders in the future. If Brown knew this about restorative justice I believe he’d embrace it in a robust way at this time.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association need not block restorative justice policies. The CCPOA has not traditionally supported community corrections for any type of offenders. But things have changed. The union knows that the prison system in California is in deep trouble. They know, too, that the state can no longer afford to respond to all crime by building more and more prisons. The union, and its officers, deserves to work in prisons that are safe and where those serving time are manageable.  Restorative justice responses to crime would guarantee that kind of outcome. The challenge for Jerry Brown is to support community corrections for nonviolent offenders while supporting the funding needed to make it possible in struggling California counties. Monies currently being used to pay for the housing of state prisoners must be diverted to pay for those costs. Of course it is complicated, especially now, but impossible? No.  I am convinced even this challenge can be overcome. Not only is this the smartest most cost effective option it is can benefit victims of crime.  

Jerry Brown can open the door for deep, systemic reform of the prison system by embracing what he said once in supported: restorative justice. Will he do it? I have high hopes.  He is the leader who can do it. 


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