By Christopher Petrella and Alex Friedmann
David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York, writes that “capitalism never resolves its problems; it simply rearranges them geographically.” The same can be said of California’s almost three-year-old Public Safety Realignment initiative – legislation designed to reduce the Golden State’s prison population, in part, by transferring thousands of prisoners from state facilities to county jails.
Sadly, Realignment has merely shifted the very forms of human suffering it was originally intended to relieve. This – the paradox of modern penal reform – adds a crucial dimension to discussions about who, why and how we punish offenders. Clearly, shifting a criminal justice crisis isn’t the same as solving one.
The Realignment Initiative
Since at least 2011, the State of California has been the epicenter of contemporary prison reform in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has noted that 70% of the total decrease in state prison populations from 2010 to 2011 was a direct result of California’s Public Safety Realignment initiative.
On May 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order by a three-judge federal court requiring the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity within two years to alleviate overcrowding that resulted in unconstitutional medical and mental health care. [See: PLN, June 2011, p.1]. California Governor Jerry Brown had called the court’s order “a blunt instrument that does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed.”
By John E. Dannenberg
Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown approved four out of every five parole grant decisions by the Board of Parole Hearings (Board) for prisoners convicted of murder, sentenced to life with parole. Totaling parole grants for 377 lifers, Brown’s record dwarfs the scanty parole approvals of his predecessors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis.
California’s parole process for life-sentenced murderers has been stymied for decades by governors who fear the political repercussions of paroling lifers, based on what happened to former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis had permitted a violent prisoner serving a life sentence, Willie Horton, to have a weekend furlough; while on furlough Horton committed additional violent crimes, including armed robbery, assault and rape.
When Governor Dukakis later ran for President in 1988, his rivals produced a TV ad depicting a revolving door that showed him giving furloughs to violent felons. The infamous ad labeled Dukakis a “soft on crime” liberal who allowed dangerous criminals to commit more crimes. He subsequently lost the presidential election to George H.W. Bush.
Since then, few politicians have ventured to use their discretion to release prisoners serving life sentences for murder. In California, the first governor to be granted the statutory power to make such decisions was Gray Davis. His statement at the time was that if you killed someone, forget it – you’re not getting out (notwithstanding that state law requires release on parole to “normally” be granted). In his years as governor, Davis arbitrarily overruled every favorable Board parole decision for life-sentenced murderers, save five – equating to a lifer parole rate of a fraction of one percent.
Following a competitive bidding war between California state mental hospitals and state prisons, both seeking psychiatrists to treat their mentally ill patients, the prison system has emerged as the winner – largely due to a federal court order to improve prisoner mental health care. However, the term “winner” is misleading because it is both patients at understaffed state mental hospitals and California taxpayers who turned out to be the losers.
The federal district court in the long-running Coleman case [Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. CIV S-90-0520 LKK JFM P] found that a major cause of understaffing at California prison mental health facilities – understaffing that was tied to excessive and preventable prisoner deaths – was the inadequate wages offered under then-existent state pay schedules, which made it hard to attract qualified psychiatrists.
There was not a long line at the unemployment office in California for out-of-work psychiatrists, however, so the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had to try to entice such gainfully employed professionals away from their comfortable city offices where clients were able to walk in, to stark prison environments where their patients were violent criminals. In December 2006 the district court ordered the state to boost the wages for prison psychiatrists, which jumped from a monthly base pay of $13,311 to $24,267 for chief psychiatrists – an 82% increase. State mental hospitals were not included in the order.
Consequently, the CDCR wound up offering prison psychiatrists higher wages than psychiatrists employed in state mental hospitals – causing the latter to jump ship from hospitals to prisons to partake of the increased salaries. Predictably, this had a devastating effect on staffing levels in state mental hospitals. In fact, at least two patient suicides were linked to the vastly increased patient-to-staff ratios at the hospitals; one of those deaths resulted in a lawsuit and a $975,000 settlement with the state.