Dan Walters: 1970s actions on prisons come back around to bite Gov. Brown

dwalters@sacbee.comMay 24, 2011 

Dan Walters

History should record the late 1970s as an era of pivotal socioeconomic change in California – a new wave of inter- national migration, a shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, and a new baby boom.

Political events also abounded, topped by passage of Proposition 13 but including collective bargaining for public employees, expansion of mail voting, a decline in major-party registration, and the eruption of crime as a powerful issue.

By happenstance, Jerry Brown was governor as this socioeconomic tsunami crashed into California and played a central role in its political aspects.

The crime issue was especially vexing for Brown, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, and he responded by signing dozens of lock-'em-up anti-crime bills. Not surprisingly, the new laws and tougher attitudes by prosecutors and judges began raising the prison population.

When Brown became governor, the state had about 20,000 men and women behind bars and hadn't built a new prison in many years. By the end of his governorship, however, prisons were packed and corrections officials were begging for new space.

Reluctantly, Brown supported a $495 million bond issue to jump-start prison construction. During the 1980s and early 1990s, billions of dollars were spent on dozens of new prisons.

The Department of Corrections mushroomed into a huge state agency with tens of thousands of employees, and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association became a very powerful political force.

The inmate population quickly tripled, passed 100,000 by 1991 and then leveled off in the 150,000 range (not counting another 100,000 or so parolees) in the past decade.

However, expansion of prisons lagged for political and financial reasons, and they now house 79 percent more inmates than their designed capacity.

Overcrowding generated lawsuits, and a federal judge appointed a receiver to run prison medical care. On Monday, by a 5-4 vote written by Californian Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California must reduce overcrowding by building more prisons, releasing inmates or shifting them into other facilities.

By happenstance, Brown is governor again and has a plan to move more than 30,000 low-security inmates into county jails while reforming parole to reduce recidivism, declaring that "the prison system has been a failure."

However, the plan hinges on billions of dollars in tax extensions that have been stalled for months. The Supreme Court's decree could give Brown's plan a political boost, but it also could mean he would preside over a massive release of inmates.

While prisons have become voters' least-popular spending category, releasing felons is fraught with political peril. What goes around comes around, as the old Capitol adage puts it.

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