Friday, January 02, 2009

The Meltdown Continues

Two articles sum up what's going on with the prison crisis in California. The prison crisis is best understood when we juxtapose our ridiculous sentencing policies, such as 3 Strikes, with our ongoing unreality of finances in California. They are both part and parcel of denial of reality by those who really run this state - the People of the State of California.

First the budget crisis. From "California Progress Report," an online publication about California politics and issues:

"Schrag: A Series of Bad Decisions Have Compounded Current Crisis
By Peter Schrag

This is usually the time for looking ahead, making resolutions, wishing for greater things. But in California we've locked ourselves into a mind-set and governmental processes that look like nothing so much as deliberate attempts to avoid thinking about the future, much less dealing with it.

Through term limits, we've created a Legislature that has neither an institutional memory nor members who can expect to be rewarded for long-term success, and thus, with rare exceptions, lack any motivation for leadership or inclination to sacrifice and compromise in the present.
We have refused to change a supermajority requirement, one of the few such absurdities in America, which allows any minority to veto any budget or tax increase. If five Republicans – three in the Assembly and two in the Senate – had been willing to negotiate such a compromise, the state would have had a budget long ago.

Their loyalty to an ideology trumps all others. This is the ideology of Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform: Starve the beast. It is that ideology as much as any that has put the country into the fiscal and regulatory mess it's in now.

We have tied ourselves into knots with a combination of governmental decisions and waves of voter initiatives whose most common characteristic, whether liberal or conservative, is short-sightedness. Among others:

• Unfunded multibillion-dollar bond issues for stem cell research, high-speed rail, children's hospitals and for paying off past debts. With interest, the long-term cost of each will be double the advertised price.

• A $6 billion annual "spending increase" to replace local government funding lost through an impulsive cut in the car tax.

• Autopilot sentencing laws hastily passed in the wake of one heinous crime that continue to cost billions in prison expenses.

• An inflexible class-size reduction program pushed through without study or serious debate by a petulant governor wishing to punish the teachers unions. It costs $2 billion a year.

• An unfunded initiative extending pre- and after-school programs that costs close to $500 million a year.

• Corporate tax loopholes written into the tax code in flush times that easily matched the increased spending on education and other programs that were enacted in the same years.

• And the grandfather of them all: the convoluted, accountability-defying, state-local tax and revenue system spawned thirty years ago by the passage of Proposition 13 and the long string of state measures to bail out the locals that have been enacted in the years since.

Those bailouts inadvertently taught all the wrong lessons: that you can have your local property tax limitations and good services, too; that the way to solve any major problem was through the initiative, not through electoral politics; that the legislature and governor who bailed you out were irrelevant and often worse; that the citizen's first concern was not community but what he could get from it.

Those ballot measures were almost always designed not to be respectful of political minorities – their very essence was to get a 51 percent majority – or to serve the state's long-term interests.

They were usually drawn by deep-pockets groups, and advertised to address an issue of the moment. As new problems arise, the remedy is a fix for problems present, rarely for problems yet to come.

It's long been a truism that we're living on the investments and foresight of the past: our once-pioneering highway systems, now in terrible disrepair; the state's unmatched public universities, now increasingly struggling against the effects of declining public support; the statesmanship that created a great water system by linking the need for water supplies in the south to flood control in the north.

Like much of the rest of the state's infrastructure, that too is now superannuated, the victim of chronic neglect. The miracle of the infrastructure – and the tribute to its farsighted creators – is that it served the state so well for so long.

It helped drive the great California boom of the postwar decades – attracted the talented, ambitious men and women who made California the great center of technology and creativity it became. They didn't come for low taxes, but for good schools, outstanding research universities, parks, recreation and transportation.

California historian Kevin Starr asks where the great leaders of California's future will come from. Where are the Pat Browns, the Clark Kerrs, the Earl Warrens, the Goodwin Knights, the Phil Burtons? Where are visionaries like the philosopher Josiah Royce, born in 1855 in Grass Valley, who believed that Californians would always understand that their interests lay in community, not self-aggrandizement?

What they shared was a vision of the future, a fundamental optimism about this place. It's that kind of hope and optimism, and that kind of people that, at this time of year especially, are so much worth wishing for.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee. This article is published with his permission. Posted on December 30, 2008." Here is the website where I got this from:

Juxtapose this with the prison crisis. From an online article by New American Media.

"Prison Overcrowding Crisis Unhealthy for All Californians

New America Media, Commentary, Donna Willmott, Posted: Dec 04, 2008

Editor's Note: California prisons have become the largest mental health system for the poor, the largest battered women's shelter, and the largest system of public housing, observes NAM contributing writer, Donna Willmott, M.P.H. Willmott is the Family Advocacy Coordinator at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and teaches in the Health Education and Community Health Studies Department of City College of San Francisco.

As a public health professional who has spent over 10 years advocating for prisoners' rights, I am dismayed to see the health of prisoners once again become a political football.More than two years ago, the federal courts acknowledged what every prisoner in California already knew – that there has been an "unconscionable degree of suffering and death" in our prisons. With all due respect to those who are working under the federal receivership to reform prison medical care, most of the systemic issues that underlie substandard care have, in our clients' experience, remained essentially unchanged. While the Receivership has succeeded in hiring a new cadre of qualified medical providers, the fact remains that progress has been painfully slow for the 178,000 prisoners trapped in this system, and many will continue to suffer needlessly in the meantime.

Overcrowding is at the root of this paralysis. The Receivership proposes to build 10,000 new medical and mental health beds, at a construction cost to taxpayers of over $7 billion dollars. Even if this project had the support of the legislature and received the required money, the crisis would not be solved. It's not possible to build and maintain these facilities, then recruit and retain sufficient numbers of well-trained staff for this constantly expanding enterprise without bankrupting the state. Without shrinking the prison system, it will be impossible to provide the required constitutional level of medical care to prisoners.

Decades of failed public policy frame this crisis. Years of a tough-on-crime approach have spelled disaster for the health and well-being of poor people and people of color who are incarcerated at dramatically disproportionate rates. We have tried to use prisons as an answer to social problems, with devastating results. Our prisons have become the largest mental health system for the poor, the largest battered women's shelter, and the largest system of public housing. The social cost of decimating our already frayed safety net in order to expand prisons is beyond calculation. We sacrifice precious community resources to maintain a prison system that creates instability, ill health and disease, while failing to keep us safe.

Perhaps taking a page from history will help us envision a new solution to this crisis. Over 150 years ago, Rudolf Virchow, the founder of "social medicine," was sent by the German government to report on the causes of a devastating 1848 typhus epidemic. Instead of recommending the simple solution of more doctors and more hospitals to avoid catastrophic loss of life in the future, Virchow called for full employment, universal education, and agricultural cooperatives as the path to preventing future epidemics. He analyzed the root causes of the epidemic, and called for a fundamental reconstruction of society to create conditions in which people could be healthy.

If Virchow were with us today, it's likely that he would be horrified by the idea of building 10,000 beds for prisoners who are extremely frail or mentally ill, people whose incarceration couldn't possibly serve public safety. He would no doubt want us to put our resources into sentencing reform, releasing low-risk prisoners, redirecting our state budget towards universal healthcare, quality public education, training and employment opportunities, and expanding drug treatment. In short, we should be ensuring the conditions in which people can be healthy as the basis for safe communities.

If Californians continue to pour billions into massive incarceration, it will mean more pink slips to school teachers, more children turned away from their doctors, more seniors denied in-home aid, more families forced into poverty and homelessness. What will it take to bring health care to California prisoners? It'll take a new way of looking at crime and punishment, a fundamental shift in our priorities and a commitment to social equity as the foundation for public safety. Bricks and mortar can't solve this one." Here is the website where I got this from:

Put these two together and we have a very clear picture of where we are and where we are going: nowhere fast. Our economy is melting down, and we cannot afford to pay for the basics. Our infrastructure has fizzled. And Three Strikes, as well as the bloated, horrifyingly bad and ridiculously expensive prison system in California is still a major cost in all of this. But no one, NO ONE is openly talking about sentencing reform.

Why? Why?

I believe it is because so many people have been such a huge, whopping lie about our cruel, unfair, and unrealistic sentencing policies, and their social costs, that standard reform is now impossible. The system will have to melt down, complete with a massive reduction in social services statewide, coupled with prison riots, for a full sentencing reform commission to be called into action. And even then change will be too slow.

No, folks, I'm afraid that we have to lose a LOT more money in California before we ever agree to actually fix this system. But it will happen. Sooner than you think.

Dennis Wilkins
The Guest PD Blogger