Reduce California's prison population

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EDITORIAL California must reduce its prison population — as federal judges have been ordering for years to address severe overcrowding and substandard health care — and it should use this opportunity to completely reform its approach to criminal justice.

Instead, Gov. Jerry Brown has chosen to fight this reasonable directive, exporting thousands more of our inmates to other states and propping up the unseemly private prison industry in the process by signing a $28.5 million contract with Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America.

Last month, the federal judges overseeing California's prison downsizing once again extended their Dec. 31 deadline for the state to cut its 134,000-person prison population by another 9,600 inmates, pushing it back to Feb. 24 while the state and lawyers for the prisoners try to negotiate a deal. An update on the status of negotiations is due Nov. 18.

We urge Gov. Brown to follow the lead of his fellow Bay Area Democrats in choosing a more enlightened path forward. Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-SF), who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, has convened several recent hearings looking at alternatives to incarceration, including one on Nov. 13 focused on diversion and sentencing.

"I'm hoping to come up with a sentencing reform bill out of this hearing," Ammiano told the Guardian, expressing hopes that Californians are ready to move past the fear-based escalation of sentences that pandering politicians pushed throughout the '90s, continuing the progress the state has already made on reforming Three Strikes and some drug laws. Sen. Mark Leno has also provided important leadership on these issues.

There's no justification for California to have among the highest incarceration rates in the world, four times the European average, and we should embrace the mandate to reduce our prison population with everything from sentencing reform to addressing poverty, police and prosecutorial bias, early childhood education, and other social and economic justice issues.

Closely related to reducing our prison population, at least in term of dropping the "get tough" attitudes that undermine our compassionate and humanity, is treating those we do incarcerate more humanely.

Ammiano and Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) helped end this summer's prisoner hunger strike by holding a hearing on improving conditions in the prisons, including the possibility of abolishing cruel solitary confinement practices, as the United Nations recommends and even Mississippi has managed to do. And we think abolition of capital punishment should remain an important near-term goal.

Brown isn't the most progressive on criminal justice issues, following in an unfortunate tradition of Democratic governors who fear being called soft on crime. But Ammiano sees hopeful signs of potential progress, and he has our support. Now is the time to move California's criminal justice system into the 21st century.

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