Emily Luhrs from the CJCJ posted a really great think piece today. Taking on the ACLU point on the bipartisanism of criminal justice reform, they point out that conservative states have had a much easier time closing down prisons and decrowding institutions than, say, California.

Texas prisons, for example, went from a projected increase of 17,000 new prison beds in 2007 to below capacity in 2011, paving the way for an unprecedented state prison closure this year. The reforms have not only reduced system-swelling, but have led to the desired goal of increased safety. In the years following the reform efforts, crime rates have continued to drop more than the year before. In fact, research proves longer sentences have no effect on deterring future crime.

. . .

While California often leads the country with progressive reform efforts, it is not leading the way on the issue of incarceration. The same issues that are bloating California’s prison population were identified in previously prison-reliant states like Texas, providing hope that California can seek effective rehabilitative options as the state begins to reduce its prison population. CJCJ has long advocated for smart alternatives to incarceration and if Texas can close prisons, maybe California can too.

Here’s my take on the phenomenon Luhrs highlights: This is all about humanitarianism. Clearly, the dominant, if not only, factor at operation here is the wish to cut costs, and it’s the only factor that has succeeded in reversing the punitive pendulum. Conservative states like Texas and Arizona have a distinct edge over California in doing so, because traditionally, both of these penal systems have operated on the cheap. In fact, as Mona Lynch explains in her terrific book Sunbelt Justice, during the big Rehabilitation Years in California (before the 1970s brought disillusionment with that ideal), Texas and Arizona boasted farm/plantation models that were self-sufficient and did things on the tough and cheap. So, operating on the cheap is not a new consideration in these states. They’ve always done corrections with less. They are simply doing less with less. Here in CA, on the other hand, savings and corrections are not concepts that have traditionally gone hand in hand. We’ve done everything–incarceration, parole, probation, death row–on a mammoth scale and are used to decades of immense expenditure on corrections. That mindset may be even more difficult to change than the punitive mindset. The approach that corrections, by definition, have to be expensive, has always been part of the Californian paradigm, and has always been alien to the Texan and Arizonian paradigms.

So, as Californians, we need to learn how to be two things that we haven’t traditionally excelled at: Being lenient and being thrifty. Ironically, despite Three Strikes and Marsy’s Law and determinate sentencing and all that, we have a better track record with the former than with the latter. But reality is forcing us to acknowledge that and seeking more financial wisdom with corrections, and this will guide us on the right path with regard to punitivism.

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  1. Your recent readings and interest on CCPOA's role in the system suggests another wrinkle I'll throw out there. Conservative southwestern states have traditionally tended to be relatively anti-union (both Texas and Arizona are right-to-work states). Additionally, California's sprawling size and widely distributed population centers put a premium on television advertising and the role of special interests in promoting political campaigns (as, probably, does the initiative process). Despite Texas' large size, most of the population is concentrated in East Texas (I-35 between San Antonio and Dallas, the longest stretch between any two urban areas of over a million in that state, is a flat 275 miles). 60% of Arizona lives in Maricopa County (Phoenix).

  2. This is interesting. As to the union angle, I think that's been operating in interesting ways in different states. States with weaker guard unions have seen a huge increase in privatized institutions, which supposedly would've made things cheaper per inmate, but overall increased mass incarceration by making privatized construction available and possible. Is there any other angle to the union thing?

    And as to the sprawl, I wonder how much difference that made in the dissemination of punitive sentiments. Both Texas and Arizona, while not at the forefront of the initial punitive wave, have certainly been characterized by a punitive mindset. For a fine survey of what's going on in Texas, see our friends at Grits for Breakfast; and for a survey of Arizona, see Mona Lynch's book and the public discourse on SB 1070.

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