Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘California Politics’ Category

Three Strikes, the Unions, and the Liberal Crisis of Conscience

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David Onek at the liberal blog Calitics implores Californians to reform its Three Strikes law, claiming it is unduly harsh:

This disproportionate punishment is unjust, and it is bankrupting our state. We are wasting precious resources to unnecessarily incarcerate minor offenders who pose little threat to society for huge periods of time – and draining resources away from the law enforcement agencies, community organizations and schools that can truly prevent crime and keep us safe.

Despite Onek’s clear emphasis on the alleged “disproportionate impact,” there’s a nice bipartisan argument here to the extent he points out that “in the wake of Three Strikes the cost of corrections has soared. Our state prison budget is now so high that California spends as much on prisons as we do on higher education.”  He’s right!  This is a deeply disturbing problem.

But I wonder if Onek appreciates the political cross-fire he’s in.  On the one hand, he perceives a social injustice caused by Three Strikes—a clarion call to any self-respecting liberal.  On the other hand, Three Strikes is a cornerstone of the public union machine, which is in turn a cornerstone of Democratic politics.  What’s a good liberal to do?  Frustratingly for most of the public, Democrats have been unwilling to seriously engage public unions on their systemic abuses.  So it’s somewhat satisfying to know that even if liberals don’t care enough about democracy or taxpayers to stand up to public sector unions, there’s at least something—even if it’s the plight of repeat felons—that might agitate liberals into action.

Regardless of how you come down on the merits of Three Strikes, it was a critical component of the California prison guards union’s ascent to power, and the penal system’s decline into ruin.  According to Laura Sullivan at NPR, the Correctional Peace Officers Association contributed millions of dollars to the effort to pass California’s Three Strikes law in 1994.  The union’s investment paid off handsomely:

[T]he result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.

Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the union, says it does what is best for its members.

“We have advocated successfully for our members,” he said.

Paying the price was California’s once efficient, rehabilitative penal system.  Once prison guards were permitted to unionize, the costs of the state’s correctional system began to rise sharply.  Today, California’s crumbling and overcrowded prison system costs $10 billion a year—as Onek points out, as much as California spends on its higher education system.

As a result of the prison population boom resulting from the union-backed Three Strikes law, and as a further result of the drastic jump in union members’ compensation, just 5% of California’s corrections budget is left to allocate to education and vocational programs, widely regarded as the key to beating recidivism.  As if this weren’t bad enough, Governor Jerry Brown recently called for an investigation into the prison guards union after more than 10,000 cellphone that were smuggled into California prisons last year—each fetching approximately $1,000—including one found in Charles Manson’s possession in 2009:

[A]ccording to a recent state inspector general’s report, which detailed how a corrections officer made $150,000 in a single year smuggling phones to inmates. He was fired but was not prosecuted because it is not against the law to take cellphones into prison, although it is a violation of prison rules to possess them behind bars.

Responding to the issue, a union representative dryly remarked that if the state decides to search guards for cellphones, taxpayers will have to pay for union members’ time spent standing in lines at metal detectors.

I appreciate that Onek recognizes the serious economic realities of public union initiatives like Three Strikes.  I’m curious, however, whether the type of reform Onek might propose would make concessions to unions, who will almost certainly lobby vigorously against it otherwise.  Which of the two mutually exclusive liberal objectives here will prevail?


Written by Tim Kowal

February 23, 2011 at 11:29 pm

When it comes to Supreme Court nominations, Jerry Brown has a type

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Governor Brown indicates his criteria for potential Supreme Court justice nominees:

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Brown brought up the subject during a two-hour conversation in San Francisco on Friday and suggested his appointee would be relatively young, quite possibly a minority and not necessarily a current judge.

“He’s interested in ethnic diversity, he’s looking at academic professor types and also for someone young who will stay awhile,” Cantil-Sakauye said Wednesday in recounting the discussion.

This might sound familiar.  Chief Justice Rose Bird, Brown’s most controversial appointee from his first term as governor, had no prior experience as a judge.  In fact, she had been admitted to the California State Bar just 10 years prior, only barely eligible under the state’s present constitutional 10-year membership requirement.  Cal. Const. art. VI, § 15.  Bird was also “relatively young”—only 40 years old when appointed Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court in 1977.  And she was a “professor type,” having taught at Stanford Law School from ‘72 to ‘74.

Watch Jerry Brown closely when it comes to appointments, particularly judicial nominees.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 13, 2011 at 12:05 pm