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Brown on Prisons: the Right Policy and Good Politics

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

While Governor Jerry Brown’s tough stand with the federal court over who runs the state prisons will not endear him to the federal judges or to attorneys representing prisoners, California citizens will support the governor’s stand.

Brown stood up to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel that oversees the prisoner reduction ordered by the courts saying that the problems with the prisons have been fixed. He noted a drastic reduction in the number of prisoners and argued that prisoner healthcare – the issue on which the federal court justified its intervention – was reformed. “Most people going to prisons get the best healthcare they’ll ever get,” the governor said.

He also railed against efforts by prisoner lawyers to seek “gold plate” reforms at the expense of important state budget demands. “We are spending, not the $300 million we spent four or five years ago but, $2 billion, and that money is coming out of our schools, out of our child care and out of our scholarships for college.”

Arguing that prisoners are getting good healthcare because of aggressive attorneys while education goes wanting are all messages most Californians will embrace.

Brown emphasized that attempting to reduce the state prison population to the arbitrary goal set by the federal court could put dangerous criminals on the street at the expense of public safety – a surefire point to which the people will agree.

Another reason Californians will line up behind Brown’s position is that many of the state’s residents believe – incorrectly — that prisons are the top item when it comes to state spending.

One year ago, the Public Policy Institute poll asked voters, out of four state spending categories, which represented the area that received the most state spending. Topping the poll was Prisons and Corrections at 47%.  The second largest category chosen by those polled was Health and Human Services at 27%. Finally, K-12 Public Education was tabbed by 16% and Higher Education was named by 5%.

One questionable action by the governor on the prison matter was to issue a proclamation ending the use of out-of-state prisons to relieve prison overcrowding. Brown contends the move will save money. It will also benefit one of his biggest supporters, the prison guard union. Whether the move will save money in the long term is uncertain, but it will add to the influence of an already powerful union.

Politically, Brown will have the people behind him if, as he says, he will pursue his stand on prisons all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Although the high court once before backed up the three-judge panel’s stand on California’s prisons, overturning actions of the 9th Circuit is a common practice with the Supreme Court.

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