Sunday, January 19, 2014

California must lead the way in prison reform and rational drug policies

No one in America exemplifies the corrupt nature of mass incarceration better than Jerry Brown, Democratic Governor of California. Like the rest of our prisons in America, California's prisons are instruments for the oppression of black, brown, and youthful Americans.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that overcrowding in prisons is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. A three-judge panel has informed the state of California that it needs to reduce prisoner population to 137.5% of the prison system's designed capacity.

California's real problem is not a shortage of prisons or an oversupply of prisoners. California needs to reform its laws to make fewer criminals out of non-violent citizens. The state is not alone in this problem. Most of the states have the same one. But California has been ordered by a court to solve its problem, at least partially, yet refuses to do so.

Actually, only Governor Brown refuses to take action. The state legislature passed a law that would have made non-violent drug offenders eligible for early parole, but Brown refused to sign it. Instead, he proposed to spend more money on prisons to lock up thousands of people who should never have been imprisoned in the first place.

California's drug laws are irrational. The state locks up people for possession of small amounts of drugs, but it looks the other way as marijuana growers in the state grew a crop worth at least a billion dollars in 2014. Errand boys go to jail. Kingpins don't.

Brown is unduly influenced by the California Correction Peace Officer’s Association, the prison guards' union. It's understandable, since they paid $2 million for his reelection. Like the honest politician he is, he repays political favors.  The union has only one agenda, to put more prisoners in jail for longer so there will be more jobs for guards and more dues for the union.

In pursuit of this agenda, the union has opposed any sentencing reform. Even Democratic politicians like Brown favor long sentences, and California has one of the strictest sentencing structures in the world. Its "three strikes" law results in life sentences for misdemeanors as trivial as stealing a pizza. Its determinate sentencing laws can result in years spent in prison for relatively innocuous crimes.

When pressed about his opposition to legalization of marijuana, Brown retreats into vague generalizations about how America will not be able to compete in the world if it legalizes this drug:
I do think America’s under a certain amount of competitive pressure. We like to think of ourselves as the leading power, and we’re an aging 4 percent of the world’s 7.2 billion people. So I think we have to stay alert and heads up. I don’t know if everybody’s going to pot that that’s going to be a positive path forward.
This kind of specious logic avoids the real problem of mass incarceration. All the damage that Brown mentions is vague, hypothetical, and unlikely to happen in the real world. Mass incarceration, where America imprisons more of its people, relatively speaking, is a real problem and it has been happening for years. Brown has been ordered by federal judges to reduce the number of prisoners in his state. His response is to say that there may be some kind of problem some time in the future. This response is nonsense.

Brown should lead the people of California, who have shown themselves willing to stand in the vanguard of rational drug and sentencing policies. He should cease to be a dead weight in the current of change.

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