Why We Should Cut Prison Budgets Now

Governors everywhere are facing difficult decisions as the recession continues to threaten their states. But for many, like California's newly-elected Jerry Brown, the decisions aren't looking so hard at all. Indeed, Brown's budget proposal looks suspiciously similar (in outlook, if not particulars) to the austerity measures recently imposed in Europe: eviscerating the weakened welfare state and extending billions in tax exemptions.  

These measures, whether in Brown's California or David Cameron's U.K., look like necessary economic measures. (Governor Brown has challenged Californians to devise a better way to save the state – as though he and his team have already exhausted all reasonable options.) "Austerity" and "crisis" tactically and rhetorically de-politicize eminently political decisions. They reveal which citizens are expendable and which policies and institutions are untouchable.  

In California and across the country one institution in particular seems eternally insulated from budget cuts: the prison system. Prisons are expensive and unpopular – and more expensive and unpopular in California than almost any other state.  

The Public Policy Institute of California recently found that 70% of Californians across party lines favored cutting the state's nearly $10 billion prison budget. Brown's suggested cuts to the system are minor – eliminating the $78 million juvenile justice system and transferring some state prisoners to local jails – and they won't prevent the prison budget (and prison population) from ballooning. Meanwhile, robust prison reform would bring meaningful budget gains.  

Officials and activists report that releasing only the 1,500 sickest California inmates would save the state nearly half a billion dollars; eliminating (or even amending) the Three Strikes Law could save a billion and a half more; and a death penalty moratorium would save millions in court and administrative fees. (To say nothing of even minor drug legalization: the recently defeated Proposition 19 could have freed thousands of non-violent offenders and saved millions. The Justice Department itself suggests that non-violent drug offenders represent at least 20% of the prison population nationally.)     

Instead of toeing the line by forcing cuts that would punish the most economically marginal citizens who benefit from safety net policies, the Brown administration could be a national bellwether, challenging hyper-incarceration and a truly bloated prison budget. If public opinion and economics are on his side why doesn't Brown relent? Political pressure from the prison guards union? Lobbying by prison construction firms and big business? Indeed, during his campaign Brown received nearly $2 million in contributions from the union, and prisoner contractors have long held sway in Sacramento.  

But things go deeper than Brown and deeper than California: to the economic structures and accompanying political, ideological transformations that have, since the 1970s, caused an unprecedented and seemingly endless growth in the American prison population – despite verifiably lower crime rates. Lots of writersactivists, and lawyers have thought long and hard about the rise in the prison population (especially among people of color). In short, they blame the economic reorganization and de-industrialization, white backlash to the civil rights movement, and accompanying ideological and criminological shift to “preventative policing” and “broken windows” theories of crime.    

While macro transformations might be beyond the scope of local movements and political decisions, this time of “economic crisis” seems like a good one to re-politicize the prison and make meaningful cuts to curb its future growth.  Our economy and our democracy would be better off with fewer Americans behind bars.

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