When Everything Looks Like a Nail: Governor Brown's Non-solution to Prison Overcrowding

As a well-known proverb says, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," and the solution to every problem becomes, "a bigger hammer." This appears to be the logic of Governor Jerry Brown when it comes to the crisis festering in the California prison system.

There is no question that we have a prison overcrowding problem, and the federal judicial panel was right to require the State to find a solution. But the current proposals being offered by the governor are no solution. Here's why.

Fiscal Folly

It was exactly one-year ago that faith-based and community groups stood with our governor to support Proposition 30, which has provided essential funding to our elementary schools, community colleges and other vital social services. The voters trusted the governor and other supporters of Proposition 30 and passed the measure. But now our governor threatens to break that trust and forestall the progress we have made by doing the very thing he said we should not do -- expand the California prison system.

It is true, in the past year, many things have changed. By the end of the this year's legislative session and before a federal court deadline set for December 31, Governor Jerry Brown must reduce our state's massive prison-overcrowding crisis.

We agree with the court that the inhumane conditions caused by overcrowding in our state prisons is a moral crisis and must be solved. What is shocking, however, is that the governor apparently has no intention of addressing the core of our state's mass incarceration epidemic. Instead, it is widely reported that he intends to spend hundreds of millions (if not more) to transfer the current number of prisoners required by federal courts (around 9,000) to leased county jails or privately owned facilities, as well as staffing those private facilities with state prison guards.

This is simply not the leadership that is required and represents a dire lack of moral imagination. Financially, the governor's plan will cut into the hard-earned dollars won with Prop 30 intended for our broken public-education system. The surplus we have accumulated will no longer have a chance to reverse the crippling effects of the massive 2008-2009 cuts to health care and social services.

Moral Bankruptcy
But this is not just a financially irresponsible plan, it is also morally bankrupt. The scourge of mass incarceration--in which men of color are targeted for arrest for non-violent crimes at a wildly disproportionate rate compared to white men who commit the same crimes--is well documented. Putting State resources into private-prison facilities or shuffling prisoners around to other facilities will only deepen the crisis of mass incarceration, not lead us to a solution. But the governor has said that the state would not consider releasing prisoners.

Instead of reducing our prison population through funds allocated to proven in-jail programs that reduce recidivism, instead of finding ways to release the remaining 2,500 third-strikers now eligible for release under Proposition 36, instead of looking for guidance and inspiration from successful reentry and reintegration programs (like Homeboy Industries), Governor Brown seems, as Rev. Everett Bell of LA VOICE recently wrote, intent on incarcerating rather than educating, building prisons rather than people.

This in spite of the fact that, as the Contra Costa Times reported in February, "California has more incarcerated youth than any other state in the nation and has the 11th-highest youth confinement rate, according to a report released Wednesday."

The human spirit is resilient. We flow with abundant potential and can, with the right kind of support, love, and training, rise up to our best selves. But potential is only as powerful as the system in which it exists. Sadly, the criminal justice system is hard-wired to seek out those most in need of support -- those on the fringes -- and target them for failure. Our religious traditions teach us that our energies should be placed in the service of releasing prisoners, not confining them (Isa 61:1-2; Luke 4:16-19). We aren't suggesting that the state should just open the prison doors and put violent criminals back on the street, but just based upon the U.S. attorney general's recent decision to end severe penalties for non-violent drug offenders, there are other options before us -- opportunities for education, restorative justice, and growth.

Governor Brown's 'realignment' plan may have begun to reduce the state prison population in favor of county jails, but it has yet to accomplish what is really needed -- the ability to invest in our population and to tap into their potential, rather than continue to foster a broken system that all but pushes our youth into prison, while threatening the hard earned financial gains for our school and other essential services.

This post has been updated from its original version.

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