When Political Calculation Signals Moral Failure: Brown Prison Plan Concedes Too Much

brown prison plan

Gov. Jerry Brown discussing prison population proposal, with Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles), Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), and Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare) Photo: Don Thompson, AP

During a week when the nation commemorates the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, it is especially distressing to watch California Democrats yield to fearmongering and racism in their response to prison overcrowding.

Dr. King liked to say that the real measure of a person’s character “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” By this test Gov. Brown is failing us and failing to live up to his own standard of leadership.

As those of us who work on mass incarceration have pointed out repeatedly, rational solutions to state prison overcrowding are easy to identify: compassionate release for old and infirm inmates, application of good-time credits for time served, and treatment rather than jail for the 12,000 inmates who are nonviolent drug offenders. The governor and other leading Democrats could have moved in this direction months ago, when it was obvious that the courts would stick to their insistence that the state prison population not exceed 137.5 percent of capacity. Instead, we heard echoes from Brown and others of George Wallace-like defiance.

And now, with a year-end compliance deadline looming, they give us the worst possible deal, delighting not only Republicans but rewarding the prison guards’ union with a package that includes extensive use of private prisons that will be staffed by the highest-paid guards in the nation.

Candidate Brown pitched himself to California voters as Mr. Skinflint when it comes to state spending, but his plan will essentially kill the modest state surplus provided by Prop 30. And did not he promise the voters that their support for Prop 30 would restore cuts to schools and colleges and begin to heal the terrible wounds suffered by essential social services?

It does not even pass the laugh test, let alone the ethics test, to say that raiding the surplus is necessary to prevent even one additional inmate from being released. And this point, really, is where we as religious leaders most need to lodge our protest: this continuous recapitulation of the line that there is some kind of threat to public safety in releasing more people to their home communities.

Gov. Brown, Speaker Perez, and other craven Democrats know full well that this line is not supported by the evidence. There has been no crime wave in the state related to Public Safety Realignment, and there will be no such wave if additional nonviolent inmates are allowed to come home and receive the services they need to re-establish themselves and avoid recidivism. But because most of these inmates are Black and brown, it somehow becomes acceptable to represent their return as a threat.

The real threat Democrats are worried about is not crime but possible backlash from Republicans and law enforcement. It’s pure politics, in other words, only there’s nothing very “pure” about perpetuating suffering and betraying California voters for the sake of political expediency.

As always, Dr. King said it best: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but because conscience tells one it is right.”

Wednesday, 28 August 2013


  1. Carlene Brown says:

    I fully concur with the points made in this excellent article! I have been working with Susan Burton and her wonderful formerly incarcerated women who are being given a chance and the support they need at A New Way of Life. Now is the time when we must urge, perhaps force, Jerry Brown to do what we know his conscience tells him is “right”!