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Gubernatorial candidates in California talk prisons & prison reform

October 26, 2009

The Republicans except for Tom Campbell seem locked into positions more  reminiscent of the ’80s or ’90s.  Both Whitman and Poizner support building MORE prisons in California. All three support “outsourcing” prisoners to other states which have “space” and where the cost of incarceration is lower than California’s. Whitman stated she opposes a sentencing commission of any kind that could restructure prison and parole guidelines. She also stated that she would “oppose any effort to shorten the length of any offender’s sentence”. Poizner made one of the more interesting comments, “You have to be a really bad person to get into state prison.”  He added, “I’m opposed to releasing people who are dangerous, absolutely opposed.”  Campbell stated his support for reform which would include some legislative effort to “shorten some prison sentences”. He supports prisoner “outsourcing” while suggesting a reform approach that includes a “triage” approach which would include shortened sentences for some parole violators wwhile stressing that prisons be used for violent offenders (versus nonviolent offenders).

Democrats Brown and Newsom took similar positions. Brown stated he would “consider releasing some inmates” but was careful not to give details on what type of reform he thought was needed for the prison system while stating that  “serious reform” was needed. Newsom also supports releasing some inmates but again without giving much detail.  Newsom supports re-working prison and parole guidelines and would support keeping some parole violators out of the state prison system. He mentioned the need for better prisoner re-entry programming. Brown and Newsom agree with working to reduce the state’s high recidivism rate and said that would help with prison overcrowding. But again no detail was provided. Jerry Brown made the following rather odd comment to the press recently, “People who are being let out aren’t being let out because they’re suitable for release.” Newsom talked about what it is like to be a politician talking about crime. He mentioned the fear of many politicians that they will say or do something that will leave them exposed and vulnerable like presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was in 1988 after the release of the infamous offender Willie Horton.

This is a quick and dirty overview of the positions of the candidates. At this time little has been written on the candidate’s views on criminal justice. Visiting the candidate websites also provides little information on their positions on crime. Here’s my take. I come from legislative background. My career for over 20 years has been legislative: as a staff person in the California Legislature, a lobbyist for many organizations, a campaign staff person for numerous statewide initiatives and one presidential campaign, and lastly I was candidate for office. With my background in restorative justice and my passion for it I read these positions and sighed. Their positions are far too cautious, with far too many platitudes, and devoid of new ideas.  And yes, these positions are based on fear as Gavin Newsom said that each candidate might get hammered for saying something “wrong” on crime.  Maybe they’d be seen as too soft on crime or not tough enough. It truly is a fear of saying something that might weaken their political position later, if they make it through their party’s primary.

But let’s get real. The idea that we need to build MORE prisons is absolutely astounding. According to the Stanford Justice Center from 1980 through 2006 the prison population grew by a staggering 600 percent. The state has dug itself into a hole with almost an obsessive commitment to incarceration for all types of offenders—violent and non-violent. Almost without exception all tough on crime bills have become law. With the state’s prisons at approximately 200% overcrowding the federal courts are forcing the state to release inmates. All candidates support or somewhat support the idea of shipping prisoners out of state to do their time somewhere else. Instead of fixing the prison system in California we are being told that it would smart to take a short term approach and “outsource” the problem? That has got to be the nuttiest idea of the year.

Many of the positions of both Whitman and Poizner are devoid of logic. Neither candidate seems to know the inmate (profile) composition of the prison system in this state. Approximately 40% of the prison population is categorized as “nonviolent offenders”. Yet, Poizner makes the comment, “You have to be a really bad person to get into state prison.” Well, if that is the case I can think of a fairly long list of ex-lawmakers and white collar offenders who are serving time or have served time in California’s prisons. Somehow they don’t appear to me to be the dangerous and “really bad” people he is referring to. The public understands the high number of offenders who are serving time for drug offenses. A large portion of these offenders are nonviolent offenders. Again, these positions are just rhetoric.

I  don’t see the vision for the future. Where is the understanding that we can no longer build enough prisons to solve our crime problem? Where is the concern for the victim of crime whose needs have been so often ignored by the criminal justice system? Where is the understanding that by investing in good programming for prisoners inside the system they have a better chance of succeeding on the outside once released?  What we don’t see from any of the candidates is support for restorative justice which stresses putting the victim in the center of the system by stressing offender accountability in ways that seek to repair the injury suffered by the victim, and the community after crime.

One punishment option which reflects restorative justice principles has been endorsed by every blue ribbon commission that has studied California’s prison system over decades. That option is the use of community corrections for nonviolent offenders. Not all offenders should be sent to state prison at the cost of approximately $35,000 a year. With the use of community corrections the impact of crime on victims is taken into account in ways that allow for offenders to make things right with their victims as much as possible.  Given the needed resources to handle such cases locally (i.e. counties) offenders can be held accountable in ways that make sense and fit the crime while being cost effective.

When I was running for Congress I was told that I better not talk about restorative justice on the stump. Why? Because it appeared “too soft” some colleagues told me. Something’s very wrong with our thinking when a public official, or candidate, cannot support cost effective options that bring down crime rates, increase public safety, change behavior of offenders and increase the satisfaction of victims. This is the future. Candidates, and elected officials, in California and around the nation need to look for new, cutting edge solutions that make sense. If not, other states like California will find themselves surrounded by prisons with no relief for its populace, no justice for victims, and offenders who continue to see prison as “home”. We can do better. 

Sources for this blog entry:, and The Sacramento Bee, September 23, 2009.


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