Thursday, September 24, 2009

California’s Prison Crisis: A Spectrum of Re-active and Pro-active Strategies

Of the myriad of issues facing Californians as we coast into the 2010 gubernatorial campaign season, few have as much fiscal and social impact as the state’s prison crisis. Overcrowded and severely strained in resources, California spends more per inmate than most other large states. In 2007, California spent $46,437 per inmate. Compare that expenditure to Texas, who in that same year spent $19,223 per inmate, and houses nearly the same number of inmates that California does.

In an attempt to slash the state’s prison budget, the legislature and the Governor last month passed AB-14, a narrowly passed bill that would reduce the state prison population by a range of 25,000-40,000 inmates. Savings to general fund are estimated to be $524.5 million. Coupled with savings already passed in the budget revision the Legislature enacted in July, supporters say total corrections savings is $1.2 billion.

A hotly debated issue in both houses of the legislature, this discussion has been at the forefront of the campaign trail. Over the past week, the Sacramento Bee looked at the positions that each gubernatorial candidate is taking on the issue of prison overcrowding.

Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, and Tom Campbell have all expressed support for the idea of reworking prison and parole guidelines to divert more inmates into parole and preventing unnecessary incarceration for some parole violators. To reduce solve these issues, Campbell hopes to develop a “triage of parole violators” and concentrate on more violent offenders in prisons

Choosing his words carefully as to avoid straying from his role as 2010 candidate for Attorney General, Jerry Brown has been somewhat avoidant of this issue. Brown declined to comment on specific reform proposals, saying that as attorney general he has to enforce whatever proposals become law. Brown has, however, been critical in the past of a prison system that he said grew as a result of media-driven fears and profiteering by private corrections companies and prison guards.

Both Brown and rival primary opponent Gavin Newsom agree that the focus of legislation has to be on recidivism, which is currently estimated at a whopping 70 percent in California. Both would like to see increased spending on social services to level off the state’s recidivism rate. Newsom told the Bee, "We're simply not preparing these prisoners for life outside of the system, and the issue of re-entry programs becomes critical. Therein lies our big focus, at least mine."

But will efforts which prevent recidivism be enough to solve the overcrowding problem? The proof is in the pudding. UC-Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon says accountability is what is lacking from tough talk on recidivism strategy. Simon speculates, “When we say that we want government to be tough on crime, we mean that we want prison sentences to be long and the rhetoric to be sharp. But we don’t actually hold government accountable for reducing crime.”

Republican candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner have both expressed their opposition to the bill released last month. Whitman and Poizner have rejected the two main precepts of the bill supported by Schwarzenegger and the legislature, namely the early release of inmates, or the reduction of prison sentences of parole violators. Poizner told the Bee, "You have to be a really bad person to get into state prison. So I'm opposed to releasing people who are dangerous, absolutely opposed. That's no way to balance the budget." Whitman stated, “The most important role government has is public safety. It's very important to be consistent.

What Whitman and Poizner fail to recognize is that this reform package is actually a positive step toward keeping violent offenders off our streets. The bill ensures the state’s incarceration efforts are concentrated on the violent criminals and ensures that non-violent offenders have more contact with parole officers. California’s infamous “three-strikes law,” which over the years has become a cross to bear for the state’s justice system, will also see reform in the way of changing some petty crimes to misdemeanor level. The law also establishes an independent Sentencing Commission for the state, comprised of the state’s Chief Justice, Public Defender, Secretary of Corrections, sitting and retired appellate and trial judges, as well as eight additional members to be appointed by the Governor. Should either be elected, Whitman and Poizner will have the opportunity to have some real influence in how sentences are defined visa vise their appointees. This lack of faith in political appointees does not bode well for either.

So where should policymakers focus their efforts after 2010? John Hipp, an associate professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, says that most research would suggest a middle ground between the positions of these two candidates. Through research conducted in Sacremento from 2003 to 2006, Hipp found that reports of aggravated assault, robbery and burglary mostly increased in neighborhoods that received parolees. However, crime rates decreased in parolee-receiving neighborhoods with longtime residents and increased more slowly when nonprofit groups and other supportive services were available to parolees. "There's not a blanket statement about parolees and prisons," Hipp said to the Bee. "There's no good way to do it, but by being careful about who you're releasing, you can do it right."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Is All That Glitters, Really Gold?

Newsom endorses Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton endorses Newsom. To the surprise of no one, the former President and his ripening, young protégé will take the state’s fundraising season by storm. As the Godfather of political favors makes his way up and down the coast, we cannot help but wonder: what does it all mean?

The University of Missouri-St. Louis recently published a study entitled Influential or Much Ado about Nothing: An Examination of Statewide Political Endorsements in the 2008 Democratic Caucus/Primary Season. The author argues that the endorsement of a candidate (or lack thereof) bears important implications to a whole host of sources beyond gaining the support of the voters. Ideally, from a candidate’s standpoint, endorsements have a highly substantial impact on campaign contributions, poll support and media coverage – not to mention a contagious effect on additional endorsements.

Now 14 months away from electing a new governor, and Newsom pulls out the big guns; all the while Jerry Brown continues a soul-searching courtship dance under the alias of Jerry Brown for Attorney General. Does this mean Newsom will peak too early? Not exactly. According to survey results from the Annenberg Election Study conducted in 2000, endorsements indeed play a salient role in primary contests. This study indicates that in the early months of a primary election, individual endorsements can and do influence voter choice.

But how much influence can a former President have on local voters? The University of Missouri study speculates, “Elite endorsements are significant predictors of both parties’ primary vote.” While it certainly does not get more elite than Bill Clinton in the minds of many Democratic voters, it may not be the bellwether Newsom was looking for in terms of electoral support. It is true that Clinton is well-known and well-liked in California – particularly in the wake of his role in negotiating the release of two Southern California journalists from North Korea. Not to mention Clinton’s Rolodex of high-dollar Democratic insiders, which many speculate he has been amassing for this exact occasion. But with a woefully short list of prominent state leaders on his roster, how much traction can Newsom expect from the endorsement of the former President?

Since the Democratic field still has yet to be solidified, let us examine the impact of endorsements on the Republican primary races (also not entirely solidified, but further along in gestation than Newsom vs. Brown head-scratcher). Log on to Steve Poizner’s website, and see the whole host of about 100 prominent state leaders in Poizner’s endorsement camp. Meg Whitman takes a different approach, featuring big-ticket Republican presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney on her roster of supporters. While Whitman’s recent dip may have more to do with this week's “playing for field position” in her refusal to debate with fellow Republican primary candidates than it does her endorsement registry, will Poizner’s list of renowned state officials – less “elite” than a Clinton, McCain or Romney – make him the more sustainable candidate?

My guess is no. Big-ticket names get candidates the donations they need in this early primary season. In the midst of a high level of distrust that voters maintain for state officials, it would be hard to believe that State Senators and Assemblymen can improve Poizner’s legitimacy and standing with voters. The University of Missouri study finds significant electoral impact beyond the cash coffers in fundraising season. While his recent rise in the polls this week adds credence to the notion that endorsements can be the shot in the arm needed by a candidate like Newsom, we should be on the look out for how much gusto this charming duo can sustain.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Glass Half Full

Last night, the Public Policy Institute of California released a report entitled Californians and their Government, which published the results of a comprehensive statewide survey. The 37th in this series of PPIC reports, the survey examines the social, economic, and political trends that influence public policy preferences and ballot choices. In the spirit of its release, today’s posting will investigate how polling data is perceived by the public, and utilized to the benefit or detriment of statewide issue and candidate campaigns.

While organizations such as PPIC claim they are committed to “independent, objective, nonpartisan research,” there have been several instances over the past few weeks of California survey results gone awry. One such occasion included a poll conducted by Daily Kos, a national political website with self-proclaimed liberal tendencies. The website’s polling data indicated that Attorney General Jerry Brown held a nine-point lead over rival primary candidate Gavin Newsome. Moments later, the San Francisco Chronicle posted this information on its political blog and speculated on its “narrowing” gap compared to the 20-point lead Brown held in June. The news then traveled three hours into the future when it was relayed through the Washington Post’s widely read horse-race blog “The Fix.” By close of business, these results had become commonly perceived knowledge around the country.

But the numbers were wrong. Whoops.

Poll results can be addictive, and a great measure of a campaign’s success (or lack thereof). America treats an off-year campaign year like pre-season football; as the “stats” become easier to check, websites and publications find a high degree of public attention given to these horse-race figures, and pounce upon the first whiff of fresh meat.

Even the highly neutral PPIC report was greeted with a cacophony of conflicting headlines. The San Francisco Chronicle analyzed poll results under the headline “Poll: Citizens satisfied with form of state government,” whereas the Los Angeles Times suggested a far more negative outlook of these numbers, reporting “Poll finds Californians don't trust state government.”

In an age of instant access to information, these analyses can have a highly significant impact on public perception of the state of affairs. The misinformation surrounding the Brown-Newsome race could compel both campaigns to sustain major blows to campaign coffers. The PPIC numbers could be interpreted a number of ways, depending on which publication one reads. As newspapers and other reputable sources scramble to stay alive against the more opinionated news blog sites, they may begin to rely on less scientific and reliable – less expensive – data.

Will there be a turning point? Will this lack of consistency change the public conversation and have a real impact on policy? In the mean time, the public should drink their glass half full – or empty – with a few grains of salt.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Winds Of Change

In most states, gubernatorial races (and most political races, for that matter) stand for the same things. This periodic anointment of a new figurehead promises that a) your life will change dramatically after Election Day; b) the other guy is a dirtbag; and c) this is the candidate you’ve been waiting for to make a difference in how that jurisdiction can improve the lives of the voters it serves: tax breaks that never arrive, programs for which you’ll never qualify, and promises of reform of a legislature easily corrupted.

The significance of the upcoming California gubernatorial campaign season, however, cannot be overstated. For a number of reasons (most notably a certain presidential candidate who beat this drum relentlessly, as well as prior candidates for this office who have run in this same spirit), the notion of change has not been at the forefront of the messages we’ve been hearing from the four major candidates. In a desperate attempt to salvage this state from the throws of an administrative catastrophe of epic proportions, the concept of overhauling state constitution has begun to gain serious traction. It has been decades – if not centuries – since a more fundamental conversation has surfaced that puts into play the very foundations of democracy and public accountability in a state so desperate for change. Now that’s change we can believe in.

Mistrust of statewide office is as American as apple pie. But when it comes to California, a new phenomenon has arisen: mistrust of voters. Three gubernatorial candidates have joined an emerging faction of voters and lawmakers alike who complain that voter-mandated spending has created and ultimately worsened the state’s budget troubles. Proponents of initiative reform have estimated that ballot-box spending costs the state about $50 billion annually (a number the Whitman campaign uses with great frequency). Noting that this spending is not necessarily unwarranted, the three candidates have made it a point to reaffirm their support of the theory behind the citizen-imitative concept, but have put forth some logical steps toward reform.

Gavin Newsom has suggested discussion toward a sunset provision for voter mandated spending, so that no initiative could require state spending indefinitely. Newsom’s message has been one of reforming the framework and gaining the opportunity to access changing conditions many years down the road. Democratic rival Jerry Brown has been relatively silent on the general concept of initiative reform, focusing more on his stance of leaving Proposition 13 untouched.

The meat of the debate can be found among Republican primary candidates. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman greased the wheels of the initiative reform debate at a May town hall forum in Tustin when she stated, “In many ways, the proposition process has worn out its usefulness.” Unlike fellow candidates, Whitman has not put forward a direct approach to this position, instead using this stance within her typical campaign fundraising set list.

Like Whitman, Tom Campbell, another Republican primary candidate, favors a constitutional convention to reform the initiative process. Campbell’s contribution toward the conversation of initiative reform is to require proponents of particular propositions to stipulate the taxes they would raise or programs they would cut to pay for their measures. Campbell has also stipulated that a constitutional convention can only take place if it is limited to specific changes which are determined in advance.

Rival candidate, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, has been the most outspoken in the stance against reforming the citizen initiative process. “The people in California make better decisions than the Legislature,” was the retort to Whitman’s town hall comment made by Poizner campaign spokesman Kevin Spillane. Another key Poizner soundbyte: “At this time, Sacramento doesn’t seem able to write a budget, much less a constitution.”

Far and away the most ambitious attempt at reform this state has seen in decades, if ever, the pro-reform gubernatorial candidates should package prospects of a constitutional convention as a ray of hope – the kind of change this state can wrap its hands around.

Take that, “Yes We Can.”