Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Society Can Be Judged By Entering Its Prisons.

California Governor Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown has my attention today.  He declared that the emergency conditions in California's prisons have ended. Brown credited realignment, which has basically meant shifting state prison inmates to the county jails, with reducing the scope of the problem. I've blogged about it previously, noting that the remaining portion of California's budget deficit can largely be explained by the requirement that 10,900 prisoners will be housed in out-of-state prisons in 2013, in order to deal with the overcrowding emergency. From a budget perspective, if Jerry Brown can get the federal courts to agree that the prison capacity crisis has ended, and allow the Governor to move those prisoners back into the State's prisons, he will have balanced the California budget this year. 

"Crime Rate at Historic Low"
Cal Facts 2013
California Legislative Analyst
The problem Jerry Brown's discussing, while it is unlikely to be solved by the judges going along with his proposal, is one that it appears will be resolved as a result of other factors in the next few years.  The recent changes to three strikes, combined with realignment, have helped.  But the graph on the right is really what's driving the situation.  California, like the rest of America, faces continued declining rates of crime. As Richard A. Oppel, Jr. of the New York Times pointed out two years ago, no-one really knows why this is the case.  If anything, most experts had expected crime to pick up during the recent economic crisis, but the opposite actually occurred. I don't have any particular insight to why this has happened, aside from noting that whatever's causing it, the same phenomenon is occurring next door in Canada.

Brown's quotes are specifically interesting, though, because Jerry Brown almost certainly knows he's telling a whopping lie by saying California has "one of the finest prison systems in the United States." Brown is navigating through the last portion of what was a near-meltdown of California's government.  To paraphrase Viscount Snowden, truth is the first casualty in a crisis, and Dostoyevsky's observation that "a society can be judged by entering its prisons" is as true as it ever was.  California's prisons are institutions that, like the State, are stepping back from the precipice of an economic collapse. Things have gotten better, yes, but calling California's prisons the nation's finest is, rhetorically, almost certainly a bridge too far.