The WIP The global source for women's perspectives

California’s Prison Spending Grows While the State Budget Shrinks

by Rachel Meyer

As I sit and write this, a young man sits in County Jail awaiting his sentence. Three years ago he was involved in a fight while in juvenile hall for drug related charges. This fight made him eligible for Division of Juvenile Justice, formerly known as California Youth Authority (I prefer to call it Gladiator School). However, it‘s not the fight that will likely send him to DJJ – it’s the two drug tests he failed in a row.

My client is a drug addict; he has not committed another violent offense. Since his time with me, he has enrolled in adult school, has set his sights on college, and has survived circumstances that would make most of us lie down in the fetal position and give up. And yet this young man can still be sent to prison or spend extended time in County Jail for smoking marijuana. Since the beginning of my employment in the California Juvenile Justice System as a Social Worker, I’ve come to accept that most of the adolescents I work with are entrenched in a system that trains them to become better prisoners rather than productive citizens. I often find myself asking, “Is this justice?”

The state of California now holds the largest prison population in the country though it once boasted the lowest recidivism rates in the nation and was the model that other states worked to emulate. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports Division, statistics show a steady decrease in California’s crime rates since the early nineties while the prison population has exploded from 25,000 to 175,000 for this same time period.

Several reasons have been cited for this growth, but most experts agree it is due to California’s relatively recent, “get tough on crime” legislation. In recent years the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has gained in membership and in political power. A recent NPR investigative report by Laura Sullivan highlights the political muscle the Corrections Union used in order to sway voters for the tougher sentencing laws in place today. With the implementation of the “Three Strikes” law, increases in sentencing time for drug related crimes and the removal of indeterminate sentencing (where a prisoner may be released early for good behavior) greater numbers of Californians are spending more time in prison costing California state tax payers $10.6 billion dollars annually – or 9.7% of the state budget, more money than the state spends on higher education (5.9%). While spending on higher education has declined by two-thirds since 1967, spending on prisons has tripled.

As the current financial crisis in California escalates, the rift between imprisonment and education deepens. California University students and teachers have taken to protesting recent rate hikes and over-crowded classrooms and though Governor Schwarzenegger’s rhetoric of spending more on education and less on incarceration sounds good, it’s hard to stomach when he continues increased spending on prisons. Under this administration, prison funding has increased by a glaring 32% while spending on education has continued to decline.

In sharp contrast to the large sums of money spent on housing prisoners, far less is spent every year on rehabilitation efforts such as substance abuse treatment, job training and education.

Cathy B., a Social Worker at Soledad State Prison says the attitude of Correctional Officers is one of, “suppression, suppression, suppression – they don’t want to rehabilitate.” She points to the inadequate funding spent on treatment for drug offenders as another reason for high recidivism rates in the state, “drug offenders can’t get treatment in prison – even if they wanted to.”

Nowhere is the lack of value for education and job function more apparent than in the great pay disparity between Social Workers and the average Juvenile Institution Officer. As a Social Worker I am required to complete six years of higher education, maintain licensing requirements through the Board of Behavioral Sciences, and meet continued education obligations. Juvenile Institution Officers are only required to have a High School Diploma or GED. After two years of employment my annual salary is approximately $55,000 per year. Comparatively, with overtime, a JIO makes $70,000. And although I may work more than 40 hours per week, not only does my position not allow for overtime, I am also expected to carry a caseload that on average is 5-10 clients higher than the 20 that a 40-hour work week allows for effective treatment. Even with California State Licensure and continued employment, my maximum salary will never reach the same rate of pay.

Conrado M., a Juvenile Probation Officer for the County of Monterey started his career in Fresno as a Group Counselor in Juvenile Hall. “I went there wanting to help kids and found out after I was hired I was there to supervise – the opportunity to actually counsel was nonexistent.” Staff, he says, are required to counsel but are not trained, and with no provisions for education or professional training, they usually don’t have the skill. “Being in an institutional setting would not allow even the best intentioned officer to do the work,” he says. Conrado left and became a probation officer. “At least at this job, I can direct offenders and their families to get into treatment programs.”

Charlie is a 19-year-old client whose mother and father both suffer from mental illness. When he was 16, he and some friends beat a man causing him to sustain injuries that required medical care. Some of these “friends” were identified by law enforcement as Sureño (Southern) gang members; subsequently, so was Charlie, even though he is Caucasian. Since his time as my client Charlie has graduated from high school, worked at the same job for almost a year, and is now attending Junior College. He has never tested positive for drug use, has never committed a new crime, and has worked towards the goals he has set for himself consistently. Yet, in spite of his best efforts, since his release from a juvenile detention facility a year ago he has been arrested on three separate occasions for violating the terms and conditions of his probation. These have been minor violations such as obtaining a new tattoo (which he is having removed) and curfew violations.

Each time Charlie receives a probation violation, he is presented with a choice: either be housed with individuals who will leave him alone (Sureños), or be housed with individuals who will hurt him – which is really no choice at all. Each time Charlie goes to County Jail, he is “schooled” by the other inmates, forcing him deeper into a life he is trying desperately to escape.

The answer to California’s prison problem seems so simple and obvious, yet remains elusive to policy makers and apparently to the public that fails to demand reform. Punitive efforts have not only failed at reducing recidivism and crime, but have added to the problem. Rehabilitation and treatment programs like Drug Courts have been shown over and over again to be both more cost effective and efficient. But as long as those who profit from the continued imprisonment of California’s citizens hold political power and the state’s purse strings, the paradigm shift needed to end oppression in our prisons will never be realized.

With the discussion of how to solve California’s budget crisis in the spotlight, some have suggested that privatizing California’s prison system is the answer, however, this solution, once again, misses the point. By failing to address the power of rehabilitation over punishment, it will likely prove just as costly in the long run as our current system. A system that does not invest in rehabilitation can only produce a cycle of recidivism. Whether public or private, the for-profit motive will continue to foster harmful policies and we will continue to dehumanize our prison population.

“Let us never cease to feel compassion for those in want.
Let us never tire of helping victims of injustice and oppression.
He who puts his faith in the restoration of human dignity cannot be wrong.”
– Poul Hartling

About the Author
Rachel Meyer is a writer and licensed social worker who works within the California Juvenile Justice System. Rachel has been involved with the peace movement and has worked on various social justice issues throughout her career. She writes with this pen name to protect her job and avoid retaliation, for herself and her clients.

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