Thursday, July 21, 2011

Californians Embrace More Sensible Prison Policies than Their Politicians

If Jerry Brown wants to use prisons to nudge Californians into coughing up more taxes to Sacramento, it looks like he'll have to release more violent felons into the community. We kid, of course (thus far Brown's effort to make a one-year drop in the state budget as aggravating as possible has only affected education, public safety, and a variety of public service fees), but a poll conducted by USC and the LA Times suggests that Golden Staters are unwilling to support higher taxes or cuts to other services in order to address the crisis of prison overcrowding. Instead, Californians would rather embrace Brown's "county realignment" plan and explore reforms to the "three strikes" law.

Unless you're a columnist for a major newspaper or a politician in Sacramento, nothing in the poll should surprise you. Californians are far more concerned about the state's weak economy than about crime, which has been steadily declining for years. As such, poll respondents seemed solidly in favor of finding new ways to comply with the Supreme Court order to reduce prison populations, and solidly opposed to raising taxes or cutting other services to do so. Three-fourths of self-identified Republicans and self-identified Democrats opposed higher taxes to pay for more prison space, and only 12% said they'd accept cuts to health care or education to build prisons. More than 60% (including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents) favored softening "three strikes" life sentences for offenders convicted of property crimes, and almost 70% approved of early releases of low-level, non-violent offenders. (Interestingly, Latino respondents were less receptive to these reforms than white respondents.) Some 80% favored keeping low-level, non-violent prisoners in county custody rather than sending them to state prison, and the same percentage favored paroling inmates who were paralyzed, in comas, or so debilitated by illness that they no longer pose a threat.

In other words, Californians appear to solidly favor a sensible and surprisingly libertarian prison policy. Of course, since it doesn't include higher taxes, it remains to be seen whether Sacramento will be willing to follow their lead.

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