THREE WEEKS IN CALIFORNIA

April 14th, 2013

Yet again this week the Ninth District Federal Judges ordered Governor Jerry Brown to downsize California’s massive and unconstitutional prison system. State officials have three weeks to produce a plan in compliance with the court’s order first issued in 2009. It’s time for everyone to echo the court’s determination: “Enough!”

For decades California has built and filled prisons. For decades grassroots organizations have fought against that all-purpose solution to problems set into motion by California’s profound economic restructuring. The organizations were right, and convinced many skeptics – from public sector unions to newspaper editors to Johnny-come-lately advocates to federal courts – that the state’s direction was wrong.

Nearly four years ago a three-judge panel concluded that conditions in California prisons violate the 8th Amendment, and identified the size of the state’s prison population as the cause of those violations. At that time the Court ordered the prison population downsized to about 110,000. In 2011 The Supreme Court upheld the decision. Parole reform and Brown’s realignment plan have reduced the in-state population to 124,167 (with another 8,501 held in out-of-state private prisons).

California’s prison crisis has reached a definitive crossroads. Should Gov. Brown and most of the state’s law enforcement establishment have their way, we’ll see a return to the growth of the prison system both in the number of cages and the number of people held in those cages. Criminal justice ‘reform’ will have amounted to little more than shifting some incarcerated people from state to county supervision. And for many of the state’s counties, ‘supervision’ will mean doing time in jail. In Los Angeles County, for example, scandal-ridden Sheriff Baca has proposed building a new $1 Billion men’s jail and wasting another $200 Million for a women’s jail.

The alternative path is clear: the Legislature must enact real, retrospective sentencing reform. Lawmakers must also develop new policies on medical and elderly parole, compassionate release, and good time credits. County Boards of Supervisors can and must resist pressure to increase jail capacity, and instead invest state realignment money on services in the most vulnerable neighborhoods.

For Gov. Brown and LA County Sheriff Baca the crisis is an inconvenience that has temporarily slowed the growth of the state’s system of mass incarceration and shifted its course of development. For others, it is a remarkable opportunity to undo three decades of cynical disinvestment in California’s future.

The Governor’s pathetic efforts to stir public anxiety (“I’m sure the people in L.A. would like to see more prisoners out on the streets”) is an excellent indicator of how bankrupt his ‘reform’ efforts are politically, morally and intellectually. That he is, as Diana Zuñiga of CURB put it, “digging in his heels to defend an indefensible prison system” is not a surprise. That he has sunk to fear-mongering shows his desperation.

California has 50,000 fewer people locked in prisons and jails than it did five years ago.  We have the opportunity in the coming months to make further reductions in a system that destroys lives, inside prison and out, and to shift public priorities and public spending away from cages and cops and into programs that build a stronger and safer California.

Over the next 3 weeks, the details of the state’s compliance plan will be fought out. Help us win that fight.

Ruthie Gilmore is Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her prize-winning book is Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007). She serves on CURB’s National Advisory Board, is a co-founder of Critical Resistance and the California Prison Moratorium Project, and is past President of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. 

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