11/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

We Can't Afford the Politics of Punishment

When the California Assembly refused to confront the enormity of our prison crisis, they revealed the bankruptcy of California's politics of punishment. Few doubt that the correctional system is in terrible shape: prisons are overcrowded, parole and probation officers are overwhelmed, recidivism rates are sky high, prisoners' health and the health of the communities that they return to are endangered, and the costs to run this failed system take up an astronomical amount of funds -- funds that could be spent more wisely elsewhere. Yet even though the Assembly considered a bill that was already a watered-down version of what their State Senate colleagues had passed, a bill that would not meet the requirements of court orders to fix overcrowding nor begin to take the steps necessary to seriously reform the state's correctional system, the Capitol was treated to cries that, as Assemblyman Jeff Miller put it, "we might as well set off a nuclear bomb in California with what we are doing with this bill." Republicans, in other words, engaged in their usual hyperbole over the issue, while at least some Democrats were so afraid of looking "soft on crime" that they insisted on removing provisions that might have met budget needs and court orders.

Significantly, the Assembly refused to support a Sentencing Commission to rethink California's dysfunctional use of incarceration. While some Assembly members insisted that they opposed turning sentencing policy over to unelected officials, their claims seem dubious at best. After all, the legislature would have the power -- on a simple majority vote -- to block any proposal of the Commission. Nor is it likely that the Commission would propose threats to public safety. The State's Chief Justice would have chaired the commission and its other members would have been nominated by the Governor subject to Senate approval. And in refusing to take steps to reduce the prison population sufficiently, the Assembly effectively turned prison policy over to the Federal Bench. No, the answers lay elsewhere.

By rejecting a Sentencing Commission, the Assembly once again demonstrated the triumph of short-term politics over long-term planning. Having the Federal Courts make the hard decisions not only spares the legislators having to do so but also provides an easy target for criticism and a useful tool for fundraising. What could be easier than to attack the Federal Bench -- especially when they speak up for the constitutional rights of inmates? On the other hand, a Sentencing Commission that sought a system of sentencing that was both just and necessary for public safety might enable a rethinking of penal policy less easily derailed by the established politics of punishment. But doing so would mean subordinating the interests of ambitious legislators and prosecutors to the demands of the public good. That, apparently, was a step too far for some members of the Assembly.

For decades now, unexamined myths and assumptions about incarceration and public safety have shaped our politics and society. California has led the way in trying to incarcerate our way out of our social problems. But as we have built more prisons we have taken resources that could have been used for our roads, our schools, our public health, our fire departments, and our neediest citizens. At the same time, our romance with incarceration has distorted the problems of public safety. The parole system is overwhelmed by the numbers of inmates and the rigidity of oversight -- with the result that serious offenders get lost in the mix and escape sufficient oversight (although the state has taken some steps to remedy that problem). Entire communities -- especially of minorities -- are devastated as family and generational ties are dissolved in the distance between prisons and homes.

In the end, the California Legislature caved to the politics of fear. Our addiction to incarceration and the politics of punishment undermines even those institutions that might better assure public safety. As the State's leaders play politics with the correctional crisis, shelters for victims of domestic violence are being closed due to the Governor's veto of their funding. Even when efforts to restore that funding passed the Assembly, State Senate Republicans blocked funding because they were upset about other unrelated political goals. Funding spent on prisons takes away money that could be spent on child protection services -- which might prevent further horrors like those allegedly inflicted by Phillip Garrido.

The correctional crisis and the state's failure to put long-term policy ahead of short term politics is damaging enough on its own terms. But it is also symptomatic. The State has for too long sacrificed long-term investment for short-term profit. We have allowed our inequalities to grow instead of investing in the community as a whole; we have chosen to invest in punishment, not education; we have accepted a tax system that -- for all of its vaunted progressivity -- actually falls heaviest on the working and middle-classes. In these developments we have allowed a politics driven more by sound-bites and hyperbole than a concern for all of our citizens and a realistic investigation of policy.

None of these developments, of course, are limited to California. It is only here that they take their starkest form. As the country heats up in battles over health care and equity, the politics of punishment marks one long-term strategy where we have sought to solve our problems by listening to our fear rather than our reason. We can no longer afford this politics. And we can certainly no longer afford the politics of punishment.