Gov. Jerry Brown confirmed this week that he is pulling his prison policies out of a 1980s playbook. It is heartbreaking to watch our nation’s most famous Democratic governor cling to outdated, lock ‘em up notions that even conservatives are abandoning in droves.
For the last two years, Brown has fought tooth and nail to avoid implementing the Supreme Court’s 2011 order requiring California to reduce its still overcrowded prison population. Tuesday, he made his most shocking step yet by proposing to send inmates to for-profit prisons. This boondoggle will cost an additional $315 million and more than $1 billion over three years to house thousands of people in private prisons leased by the state. Even our most extreme, fear-mongering politicians of decades past would have been reluctant to put forward such a scheme.
Brown appears hell bent on being on the wrong side of history. Across the political spectrum, leaders are beginning to understand that we need to invest in rehabilitation, re-entry programs, and evidence-based alternatives, rather than continuing our failed policies of mass incarceration.
Governors across the country, including conservative Republicans, have reduced prison populations while cutting state corrections budgets. California’s unconstitutional, overcrowded prisons are already home to approximately 125,000 people, with another 8,000 housed in other states’ prisons. Approximately 15,000 prisoners have no current or prior serious or violent felony, and roughly 10,000 are incarcerated for drug crimes. At least 5,000 are over the age of 60.
Through medical parole, geriatric parole, compassionate release, expansion of good-time credits and meaningful sentencing reform, California can further reduce its prison population and comply with the Supreme Court decision in a cost-efficient, safe and responsible manner.
Instead of pursuing any of these alternatives, Brown wants to double-down on failed approaches by making an expensive and dangerous pact with the Godzilla of prison policy: the notorious Corrections Corporation of America. This corporation profits from incarceration. It has been shown to have worse conditions, lower standards and reduced staffing levels in its prisons.
There are alternatives to Brown’s proposal. Rather than creating a system where private industry profits from further increasing mass incarceration and the bloated corrections budget, we can invite innovators to profit from alternatives to incarceration and forward-looking solutions. For example, a new financial tool called “social impact bonds” allow private investors to finance successful programs that prevent people from going into prison or reduce recidivism. Brown has the responsibility to lead us away from policies that resulted in the United States incarcerating more people per capita than anywhere else in the world.
For California, a bloated prison budget robs resources from education, health care and job training – the very programs and services that research shows can prevent the need for incarceration in the first place.
Brown should withdraw this costly, reckless partnership with private prisons that would do nothing to reduce the overall prison population. Instead, he should initiate a public conversation about which of the readily available and cost-efficient alternatives to incarceration would be best to implement in California.
The people are ready for this conversation, but is Brown? History will be the judge.
Van Jones is the co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Matt Haney is a commissioner on the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education.