The financial crisis has made everyone think about priorities–whether it’s rethinking homeownership, or deciding which state programs to keep and which to cut. The upcoming state budget is full of such compromises, including a $530 million cut to services for the disabled. On Tuesday, outside San Quentin State Prison, groups of disabled citizens picketed outside the prison’s gate to protest the cut. Why were they protesting outside of a prison? Here’s what organizer John Rumsey of Marin Ventures had to say:
“When we go to the governor and legislators and say, ‘Don’t cut us,’ they say, ‘Well, where do you want us to cut? Give us some ideas,’” he said. “Well, we thought about it and we thought prisons would be a good place to start.”
Specifically, Rumsey and his fellow picketers were protesting a proposed expansion to San Quentin’s death row (which is old and overcrowded) that would cost the state about $365 million. Why spend money on the death penalty, he asked, and drop services for the disabled?
Increasingly in this recession, people are looking at our criminal justice policies–and not just capital punishment–in this light: what is the financial cost of our criminal justice system, and in comparison, how well is it working? Interestingly, a whole new movement is cropping up around this question, and it’s really growing in conservative circles. On last night’s Crosscurrents, I sat down with KALW’s Martina Castro to talk about a new movement called “Right on Crime” and how it’s changing the political landscape when it comes to criminal justice reform. (Transcript after the jump.)
MARTINA CASTRO: Alright, let’s start by talking about yesterday at San Quentin. There were a lot of things going on at the prison yesterday.
RINA PALTA: That’s right, and they all had to do with the death penalty. San Quentin houses the state’s death row and also is the site of the state’s execution chamber. As we’ve discussed on this show before, there’s currently a lawsuit about the state’s lethal injection process going on right now. And the judge presiding over that lawsuit, Judge Jeremy Fogel, visited the prison yesterday to tour the new lethal injection chamber. This is the same judge who found a lot of issues with the old chamber. So the state built a new one, and this was Judge Fogel’s opportunity to tour that chamber and see if it’s better than the old one. And these protesters from the disabled services community knew that there would be a lot of media at the prison for Judge Fogel’s tour, and they showed up to make a point about cuts to their sector. And also a larger point about the death penalty in general.
CASTRO: What point is that?
PALTA: Well, essentially, right now, there’s a proposal to rebuild death row at San Quentin because it’s getting overcrowded and because it’s a bit old and run-down. So the state is looking to expand death row, at a cost of about $365 million. So protesters really wanted to drive home the point that the state is spending a lot of money on capital punishment – which I should say, a lot of Californians support – and at the same time, not spending as much on things that they think are important, like services for disabled.
CASTRO: It seems like people are questioning more and more the amount of resources and money that go into some of our criminal justice policies.
PALTA: Yes, definitely. We’re hearing more and more about the costs of things like capital punishment and our prison system. And that’s not just in California. It’s happening nationwide. And actually, those questions are starting to come from some pretty surprising places. Let me read you a paragraph from an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Postlast month. It said, “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential … It is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners.”
Any guesses on the author?
CASTRO: Dennis Kucinich?
PALTA: Newt Gingrich.
CASTRO: Newt Gingrich, talking about reducing the prison population and focusing on rehabilitation? Isn’t he a tough-on-crime sort of guy?
PALTA: This is the same man, you might recall, who as Speaker of the House in the 1990s, called for longer prison sentences and more prison construction.
CASTRO: So what happened?
PALTA: Well, it turns out there’s a growing movement in conservative circles to change America’s focus on incarceration. In fact, in December, a new project cropped up by theTexas Public Policy Foundation called “Right on Crime.” And the purpose of that campaign is to promote criminal justice reform based on a conservative agenda.
CASTRO: What is a conservative criminal justice reform agenda?
PALTA: Well, I called up Marc Levin, who’s heading up Right on Crime and here’s how he described the movement:
MARC LEVIN: The typical conservative I think is very appropriately skeptical of government. And we’re just saying lets apply the same scrutiny that you would apply to any government program, the same cost-benefit test, apply it to corrections as well.
CASTRO: That’s Marc Levin, of the new conservative campaign Right on Crime, talking about the conservative case for criminal justice reform.
PALTA: That’s right, so what we have from folks like Marc Levin is an argument for closing more prisons and giving shorter sentences, and getting more people into rehabilitative programs, based on the idea of small government. And this idea is really taking off. We have Newt Gingrich talking about prison reform. We have conservative governors in places like Ohio and Texas talking about funding rehabilitation and cutting down sentences.
CASTRO: Aren’t those the kinds of things that liberals have been talking about for years?
PALTA: Certainly, but for some reason, when the message comes from conservative luminaries, it seems to resonate more with the general public.
Actually, a study by the Pew Center for the States last year surveyed a bunch of people on the subject of criminal justice reform. And they found that if you talk about a policy like sending people to rehab instead of jail as a fiscally responsible thing to do, it gets a lot more approval. And, apparently, if you want to get a law passed anywhere, the best thing you can do is mention what they’re doing in Texas. The Pew study found that out of all the things that people remembered from the survey, a statement that Texas is shifting its emphasis away from prisons was the strongest and most memorable message.
So what we have here is a group of people, conservatives, who can really tackle prison reform and criminal justice reform from an almost untouchable place. And they’re pushing these concepts like rehabilitation and cutting prison populations to a national agenda. You know, Newt Gingrich, who many people say will run for president, is talking cutting prisons. And you’re just not hearing liberals prioritize this issue.
CASTRO: That’s not necessarily true in California, where we’re a liberal, or at least Democratically controlled state.
PALTA: Right, in California, we have a larger liberal movement for prison reform. Just look at Kamala Harris, who basically ran on a reform platform and won the attorney general’s race. You don’t see that national conservative movement really reaching California. Conservatives here tend to not be moving towards reform. At least not yet.