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Tough On Crime Doesn’t Work In Real Life

May 14, 2010

We all know Arnold was tough on crime in the movies but two pieces of related news today show why ‘tough on crime’ policies don’t work in practice and why Arnold’s adherence to them is part of what made his time as governor a failure.

Exhibit A: A California appeals court ruled that the Governator had distorted evidence in his decision to overturn a parole board’s decision to release Joseph Calderone. Schwarzenegger has been overturning the parole board’s decisions to grant parole with increasing frequency over the past two years. Calderone was in jail for murdering a security guard in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1993 but had gone through various rehabilitation programs when the parole board decided to grant him parole, citing his acceptance of responsibility for his crime and good behavior. Schwarzenegger disagreed with the board, justifying his decision by distorting the evidence, and the court basically ruled that Schwarzenegger was wrong and the parole board was right.

Exhibit B: Schwarzenegger’s most recent budget proposal includes a plan to transfer 15,000 felons convicted of non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex crimes from state prison to county jail. The program would provide counties with about $12,000 per inmate but would still ultimately transfer costs from the state to counties and would likely result in the early release of prisoners.

So, with one hand, Schwarzenegger distorts the evidence so he can appear to be Tough On Crime and then, with the other hand, he shifts decisions and responsibility for dealing with criminals to another entity.

In fact, I do support the proposal to move prisoners to county jails. We simply cannot afford to keep them in state prisons and, while part of the costs will be borne elsewhere, they will also be reduced overall, which is a good thing. I disagree with the Governor on the other point and I’m glad the court overruled him. While Joseph Calderone is a criminal, he is the type of criminal that should be released from prison as he has paid his debt to society and behaved in a way that shows that he would be a contributing member of society. Keeping him in jail is both less than just and fiscally irresponsible.

More broadly, however, the two articles show Schwarzenegger’s unwillingness to confront the two real drivers of the prison cost increases – sentencing laws and the prison guard union – both of which are untouchable under the ‘tough on crime’ dogma. In his State of the State speech this year, Schwarzenegger lamented the fact that we spend as much on prisons as we do on higher education but he hasn’t done anything to actually change the dynamic that has gotten us to this point. While it seems unlikely, it is my hope that California’s next governor (and attorney general) will have the courage to address those fundamental factors in order to genuinely address the state’s prison crisis. The no-longer-Governator can go back to being tough on crime in movies.

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