Governor Schwarzenegger's Prison Reform Initiative: The Launch Video
My colleague Charles Weisselberg had called my attention to the online video of Governor Schwarzenegger's press conference announcing his prison initiatives on December 21, 2006. He had used it in his criminal law class to illustrate the multiplicity of purposes around punishment in contemporary society (he also pointed out that with the tall and broadly built governor standing near to an equally tall police officer and another man wearing a cowboy hat, you could mistake the video for a performance of YMCA by the famed "man" band The Village People). Sure enough, in describing the problems that his 10 billion dollar package of new construction and programs would solve, Governor Schwarzenegger invoked the promise of rehabilitating inmates with better prison treatment programs (a theme that he has brought back from near death in California), but also the threat of federal courts forcing the premature release of prisoners through strict population caps. The Governor criticized parole as a "broken system" presumably referring to its practice of sending thousands of California parolees back to prison on relativley trivial technical offenses, but also promised to increase enforcement of new anti-sex offender laws (mostly premised on the same flawed belief that lies behind our high parole recidvivism rates, i.e., that once you define a person as dangeorus even trivial misbehavior must be punished with confinement). All in all it seemed to illustrate what my friend Pat O'Malley aptly titled a prescient article on contemporary penality, "volatile and contradictory punishment"
Your jurisprude gives the Governator high credit for addressing California's prison crisis and making it a broad issue of state governance rather than a narrow problem of simply locking up more bad guys as a host of his recent predecessors have. Unfortunately, the most consistent in his speech invoked the logic of prisons as a spatialized strategy to exile feared stranger from our midst for as long as possible with little consideration of the actual costs and benefits to the communities from which they are exiled and to which they are just as summarily returned. But this circuit of knowledge and power that runs through state and federal governments, the media, security experts and ordinary citizens is one that has produced what the Governor himself describes as an "out of control" prison system. Unfortunately, these logics are likely to scuttle the most promising feature of his program, i.e., his goal of moving more prisoners and resources into the counties and nearer to the communities they come from (the voters who backed Jessica's Law aren't going to welcome new correctional centers in their towns).
Real reform requires a fresh start and a broad public discussion of the basic values and purposes that should infuse a redesigned system from front end sentencing to back end re-entry and community restoration. Governor Schwarzenegger has the credibility and personal charisma to lead that discussion but he won't do it by posing in front of law enforcement and pushing the fear buttons. He should start by placing blame where it belongs, not with the parole officers and other front line personnel, but with a line of recent governors who have made building and filling large warehouse prisons a primary form of state policy in California.