Jerry Brown’s Cynical, Unethical Prison Plan

California’s governor was trained by Jesuits and understands what we mean by the words “moral economy.” Nevertheless, the nation’s oldest guv has gone completely off the rails in his rage against a federal court order to reduce state prison populations to 137.5 percent of their design capacity.

Facing the court’s mandate to get this done by year’s end, Brown has balked and fulminated in the manner of George Wallace rather than heed the many constituencies, including State Senate Democrats, who have urged him to follow the smart justice path of (a) releasing many nonviolent old and infirm inmates, (b) transferring to community-based treatment centers several thousand nonviolent drug addicts and dual-diagnosed people who are currently behind bars, and (c) applying good time credits to those inmates whose sentences would thus be fully completed and who would then qualify for release.

Some time ago Jerry Brown himself denounced the notion of pouring “more and more money down the rat hole of incarceration.” Now he is sidling up to state Republicans and law enforcement types who predict, against all evidence, that taking another 10,000 people out of their cages will unleash a massive crime wave. And he is willing to spend over $1 billion of the Golden State’s always-fragile budget surplus to keep every single current inmate locked up, albeit not in the 33 official state prisons.

Never mind that California voters passed Prop 30 to restore cuts to schools and colleges, not to fund yet more incarceration.

Part of Brown’s devilish deal involves making use of a private prison facility, one owned by notorious Corrections Corporation of America, but with unionized state prison guards getting the custody jobs. Even in this deep blue state, the lucrative incarceration business feeds Democrats and Republicans alike.

Every single progressive group in California, and a significant part of the fiscally-conservative “Right on Crime” cohort, is mobilizing to block the horrific Brown plan. But because Brown apparently has Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez wrapped around his little finger (Perez: “We are not, any of us, willing to release a single additional prisoner”), there is a very good chance that Brown’s plan will clear the Assembly as early as tomorrow, after which he will put the screws to Democrats in the State Senate on Thursday.

No one should be fooled when the “other” Jerry Brown benignly quotes various church fathers and doctors or waxes philosophical on the thinking of Josiah Royce or on the weltanshauung of Rainer Maria Rilke (yes, Brown likes to show off his erudition in this way).

When push comes to shove, Jerry Brown’s only operational value is political expediency. He is unnaturally fearful that state and national Republicans could somehow thwart his re-election plans with a “soft on crime” attack line. He ignores polls that show that most California voters support smart justice solutions. He refuses to engage in rational conversation about rational approaches. What he remembers is that the prison guards gave him $600,000 for his last campaign.

While Dr. King is still on our minds, maybe we can recall one of his clearest prophetic statements:

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.

No amount of high-end religious training appears to have shaped Jerry Brown’s conscience sufficiently for him to escape the all-too-familiar pattern of selling himself politically.

I have focused on Brown’s response the federal court order, but his hardline, show-no-mercy response to the hunger strikers suffering in solitary confinement has been equally obtuse. Brown’s religious imagination apparently does not extend to the suffering of the voiceless. That is a genuine shame, and it reminds all of us not to put our trust in princes , regardless of party affiliation.

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