California Focus: Early prison releases a political hazard, too

By Thomas D. Elias July 18, 2014 09:37 pm

From early in his career, Gov. Jerry Brown has had a proclivity for dismissing problems with wisecracks or aphorisms. As early as 1975, in the first term of his first go-‘round as California’s top official, he mocked university professors’ pleas for pay raises by saying they didn’t need more money but could make do with “psychic rewards.”

He’s done the same thing lately as companies like Toyota and Occidental Petroleum announced they were moving headquarters and thousands of jobs out of state, noting that those firms and their jobs are just a tiny fraction of the California economy. True, but the moves are very consequential for the employees involved and everyone they do business with.

Now, with the state beginning to release some non-violent prisoners to comply with a federal court order demanding that prison crowding be reduced, Brown told a reporter that “The U.S. Supreme Court ordered us to release thousands of prisoners.” The releases, he said, “are a creative solution.”

But as soon as Brown’s Republican opponent Neel Kashkari finishes hammering him for allowing Toyota and Occidental to leave (the companies say no official persuasion or tax concession could have prevented their shifts), the GOP will start in on prison releases.

Again, Brown will plead that he did all he could to resist the releases and the accompanying realignment program that sees many felons who would previously have done time in state prisons serving shorter terms in county jails. And he did, coming close to a historic confrontation with the judges involved.

But it’s also true that legislative Democrats, with no resistance from Brown, killed a Republican proposal to put all prisoners sentenced to more than 10 years in state prisons.

If Brown’s job approval rating (now well above 50 percent) were not so high, this could pose a serious political problem for him. And it still might if Kashkari begins to catch fire.

For the reality of realignment so far is that while violent crime is down in most areas since the program began, property crime is up. This means car burglaries, thefts from garages where doors are inadvertently left open and the like, with stolen goods frequently fenced to pay for drugs.

Even though no one has yet been able to show a direct link between those new crimes and realignment, many victims would likely blame Brown if his opponent could make any connection.

And yet, with the prod from the court order, California is now doing exactly what a new report from the National Academy of Sciences says all states should: cutting the rate of incarceration.

“The United States is past the point where the number of people in prison can be justified by social benefits,” said Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. The problem, says the study, is that few criminals reform while in prison, so “When ex-inmates return to their communities, their lives often continue to be characterized by violence, joblessness …” and other problems.

It’s true that fear of long prison terms has never been proven to reduce overall crime. But when someone like Randall Murray Allison balances the potential gain from trying to sell more than $2 million worth of cocaine against little more than two years in county jail, there will surely be more crime.

Which means that if he doesn’t want political trouble either this fall or in a future term as governor, Brown needs to come up with a more creative solution to the overcrowding issue. Or else he will get at least some of the blame for any new crime increase that might come.

 

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