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March 25, 2007

Interesting political twists in California reform debate

A helpful reader sent me this interesting piece from the Los Angeles Times noting a change in the way the California prison guard union is approaching sentencing reform discussions:

Is one of California's most feared unions now playing nice?  That's the question on many minds here as the capital confronts an overcrowding crisis that has the state's system of 33 prisons operating at nearly twice its capacity. Behind the scenes, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. — the 30,000-strong prison guards union famous for punishing its political enemies and supporting tough-on-crime policies that keep the prisons full — has been embracing its critics.

Union officials have opened up the organization to academics, pushed for new spending on alternatives to incarceration, and begun regular meetings with other unions. Over the last three months, the union has convened a working group of inmate advocates, defense attorneys and politicians who support the kinds of shorter sentences that were long anathema to the union.

Their goal: creating a sentencing reform bill that, with the union's sway over lawmakers, could pass the Legislature this year.  According to notes obtained by The Times, the group's proposal calls for a state sentencing commission that would seek to replace incarceration for nonviolent inmates with "community based punishment."

By reaching out, the union is shaping the debate over the state's prison crisis, and may be outmaneuvering the governor — who has yet to win support for his own prison proposals — and the federal courts, which are examining various parts of the prison system.... Still, ven among those who have been the subject of this prison guard charm offensive, doubts run deep about the union's sincerity.  Police chiefs, narcotics officers and district attorneys say the union's new, seemingly progressive policies are merely a strategy for preserving its power.  Others say the union is trying to appear cooperative in an effort to secure a new contract with the state, or avoid a possible takeover of the prisons by a federal judge who might remove job protections.

Mike Jimenez, union president, said in an interview with The Times that the union's new openness to sentencing reform and enhanced rehabilitation represents a heartfelt response to the state's prison crisis and to his own personal difficulties.  Disclosing few details, Jimenez said his 17-year-old son has been in trouble in connection with petty theft and drinking. The union leader also has discussed his son with other unions and in recent meetings on sentencing. "I've been humbled," Jimenez said. "I gotta believe in redemption.  I gotta believe that you can convert."  Referring to the union, he added: "We've come to understand that what's bad for inmates is bad for our members."...

It is telling and sad (and yet all-too-common) that those who often espouse tough-on-crime rhetoric start talking more sense when someone they know or love is facing the consequences of such rhetoric.  Whatever it takes, it is nice to see some sensibilities starting to inform some sentencing debates in California.

March 25, 2007 at 05:35 PM | Permalink


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Might there be a secret public opinion poll floating around underground somewhere? That's a big leap without knowing it would fly.

Posted by: George | Mar 26, 2007 2:10:33 AM

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