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Wake Up CA Assembly! Who are You Punishing with this Prison Budget?

Natasha Minsker,
ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy
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August 24, 2009

I don’t know what they’re drinking in the assembly in Sacramento, but it’s not the coffee we’ve been offering. Assembly members stumbled out of the chamber early Friday morning without voting on a bill that would reduce prison spending; a bill that is supported by the Republican governor, the head of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and received an “aye” vote in the senate on Thursday. One of the sticking points in the assembly: the idea that we might reduce some petty thefts to misdemeanors, rather than crimes that can result in a prison sentence when charged as a felony.

Really? Assembly members are really voting against the bill because they think stealing a piece of pizza should get you a spot in California’s overwhelmed prison system at the price tag of $50,000 a year? If that’s what they are thinking, they can’t be thinking straight. They must be under the influence of something, or more likely, some special interests. They are certainly not acting in the interest of public safety for the people of California.

The bill passed by the senate is by no means perfect, but it’s an important first step in the right direction — it will only begin to get us close to the $1.2 billion in cuts needed from the prison budget and implement small but overdue criminal justice reforms. In passing the bill, the senate showed tremendous leadership and put healing California corrections and our public safety first. Doubt is currently looming over whether our assembly will match the senate’s courage.

If our assembly members insist on maintaining the status quo and gutting any real reform out of the bill, the people they will really be punishing are the people most in need: the children and the poor who depend on the state’s safety net. If we can’t make sensible reforms to save money in our corrections system, then more children will lose their health care, more teachers will be laid off, and more health and safety programs will be cut. Inevitably, we will have more people stealing more pizza and headed off to the only government program left: prison.

It’s time for our elected leaders to lead us out of this mess.