Gov. Schwarzenegger, having presided over devastating budget cuts to the University of Calif0rnia system despite the existence of a “compact” that was supposed to protect us, now proposes a constitutional amendment that would guarantee that the UC and Cal State University systems combined get no less than 10% of the state’s budget (up from a current 5.9%) while the prisons get no more than 7% (down from a current 9.7%).
I’m all for having such a provision in the Constitution; it’s a silly way to make budgets, but it’s the California way, and without a guarantee the universities are virtually guaranteed to continue to take it on the chin at budget season. The UC system in particular, for all its faults, is a major global asset, and won’t be that for many more years under current trends.
That said, there are three aspects of the Governor’s plan – quickly endorsed by UC President Mark Yudof – that make no sense whatever.
First, the proposal would explicitly forbid using early release to help meet the target. But California’s prisons are brimming with elderly folks whom it would be quite safe to release. The alternative to releasing some of them is to drastically cut back on the number of people sent to prison in the first place. No doubt some of the current prison admissions are unproductive or even counterproductive in terms of crime control – imprisoning drug dealers and technical violators of probation and parole would go high on that list – but I’d much rather release a 55-year-old who killed someone when he was 20 than let a 20-year-old street robber walk because the 55-year-old is filling what could have been his prison cell. If we can learn to enforce probation and parole conditions with swift and certain – but not severe -sanctions, after the fashion of Hawaii’s HOPE program, we can cut crime, incarceration, and costs by shifting resources and bodies from institutional corrections to community corrections.
Second, the Governor proposes to cut costs drastically by privatization. It’s true that California has high-cost prisons, but there’s scant evidence that private prisons are more efficient (as opposed to being able to “cream” less-costly inmates). I’m all for setting up some competition for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, but I’d rather try to do it through non-profits – you might think of them as “charter prisons” – than through the Corrections Corporation of America.
Third, instead of putting the proposal on the ballot by petition – which shouldn’t be hard to do, given the size of the UC and CSU faculty/staff/student/alumni populations – the Governor proposes to put it through the legislature, where it would need a 2/3 vote of each house to pass. In what conceivable universe could the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association – long the most feared lobby in Sacramento – fail to mobilize at least one-third-plus-one votes in either the Senate or the Assembly?
Now that the Governor thrown out the first ball, I suggest that the friends of higher education take it and run with it. Strip out the “no-early-release” provision, put the budget provision in the form of an initiative constitutional amendment, get the signatures, and put it on the November ballot.
We might be able to save this place yet.