Of Taxpayers, Tea Partiers, and Lock-em-up Politics
When PPIC asked voters which major areas should be hit with cuts, just 24% named K-12 education, 35% said higher education, 37% suggested health and welfare programs and 70% singled out prisons. The results were similar when voters were asked what they were willing to underwrite with higher taxes.
Interestingly, the disdain for prison spending was virtually identical among all subcategories of voters — Democrats and Republicans, liberal San Franciscans and conservative Central Valley residents, rich, poor and middle-class.
From one perspective, it’s heartening that voters are willing to countenance a smaller prison system. And it fits with a broader trend in American life: the apparent decline of tough-on-crime politics. Yesterday, I heard Mark Earley give a talk at Stanford. He spoke about having gleefully participated in the tough-on-crime wave of legislation in the 1980s and ’90s as a Virginia state legislator, not really viewing prisoners “as human beings.” Only later did he have a Road-to-Damascus moment, or series of moments, through his work with Prison Fellowship, which brings Christian ministries into prisons around the country.
One of Earley’s points was that we may have reached a tipping point on mass incarceration: tough-on-crime rhetoric simply doesn’t work so well when you get to a point where 1 in 100 adults is in prison. It’s a lot more likely now that voters have a friend or family member who’s been caught up in the criminal justice system than it would have been 20 or 30 years ago. When Earley asked the attendees at the talk to raise their hands if they knew someone who’d been to prison, the majority of hands went up — and this was in a classroom at Stanford Law School!
Tough-on-crime politics is also hard to reconcile with the ideology of “small government,” which, at least ostensibly, is enjoying a resurgence in America. Granted, the right wing has thus far betrayed far more concern with health care reform than with civil liberties, but maybe they should re-think those priorities (if only because, if Tea Partiers don’t like providing government health care, well, they are already doing it for the 2 million+ Americans in prison!). A statement of Earley’s that stood out to me, a propos of the statistic that 1 in 31 adults are under some form of correctional control:
You tell me a bigger government program than that — it makes health care look minimal in terms of government intrusion into people’s lives.
I started this line of thought by describing taxpayer revulsion to high prison spending as a positive development “from one perspective.” What’s the other perspective? Well, the worry I have is that taxpayers don’t really want a smaller prison system, they just want a cheaper prison system. It’s true that mass incarceration costs a lot of money. But it’s also true that prisons aren’t allocated nearly enough money for health care, educational and vocational programs, and housing conditions. It’s true that California’s prison guard union has a disproportionate influence in Sacramento and has lobbied for a lot of misbegotten, counterproductive policies in the past 20-30 years. But it’s also true that paying prison guards minimum wage would not be better, even though I’m sure many taxpayers would be fine with that.
I worry that we may be heading for the worst of all worlds: more cost-cutting on prison conditions and rehabilitation programs, but without the comprehensive reforms to policing, sentencing, parole, drug laws, community mental health treatment, and all the other factors that land people in prison in the first place. Despite popular fantasies, most prisons are already pretty austere places, and yet warehousing human beings in cages is a pretty good way to ensure they don’t come out of prison changed for the better. Earley noted that the entire conversation about “public safety” in the ’80s and ’90s was focused on the front end — getting “bad people off the streets” — at the expense of the other component of public safety — preparing people in prison to return to their communities. That second component requires money. There’s certainly a lot of fat to be trimmed in prison budgets — it’s just that I hope that legislatures do focus on the fat, and not the places where the budget has already been cut to the bone.