Arnie on Parole -- Licking the third rail

Reprinted with permission by Bryan Zepp Jamieson

Nobody can say that life under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been dull.

It's only been ten weeks since he took office, and he's been busy giving the state a real roller-coaster ride. He's managed to elate nearly everyone at one point or another, and he's managed to piss everyone off at one point or another. He made the budget situation worse by keeping his promise to rescind the sunset clause on the car registration fees, and then whipped around and in a spectacular winner-take-all move, cajoled the assembly into putting Arnie's solution – a $15 billion bond to cover the deficit – in front of the voters in the form of a ballot initiative in the March primary.

He followed that up by declaring an emergency and making unilateral cuts in services. He veered wildly on policy, making several embarrassing missteps such as proposing cuts in the children with
disabilities funding, and slashing city funding to the bone, and then having to back down from that amid cat-calls from some of his most devoted followers. He suspended all new regulations on the environment, but then staunchly upheld the state's right to have air quality laws that exceed federal mandates.

Of course, if that bond measure doesn't pass, he's finished, and California is in deep trouble. His ONLY option if it fails is a big tax increase. I've no doubt he would propose such if forced by the vote to do so, and that could lead to one of the biggest and gaudiest political battles this state has ever seen.

On top of that, there's the persistent abuse and harassment charges against him, a suit for slander, and a broken promise to investigate himself for misconduct. He hasn't been playing it safe, and given that playing it safe all the time was what caused his predecessor to lose his job, that's smart politics.

But now he's come up with a truly spectacular proposal that will dwarf all the other controversies. This one will cause roars across the political spectrum that really will bring to mind that hoary cliche, "feeding time at the zoo."

Arnie proposed yesterday to reduce prison costs by over a billion dollars a year by paroling one third of the inmates in the state prison system.

Well. That should light the wowsers up.

"Tough on crime" is the third rail of California politics, and Arnie didn't just touch it; he got down and he LICKED it.

It isn't true that the state bird of California is Bernard Goetz, but it may as well be. This is pretty much the birthplace of media-driven mass fear leading to the blind, insatiable desire to punish and punish and punish, in the hopes that the bogeymen will all go away. This is the state that decided that the courts couldn't be
trusted to mete out justice, and so made officers of the court (including the judges) elected offices, imposed mandatory sentencing minimums on judges, and introduced the world to the Kafkaesque "three strikes" law by which anyone with two felonies gets twenty-five to life for any third crime committed. Only in the rank steaming hypocrisy of the Deep South are people more willing to strip convicts, and even just those accused of crimes, of even the most basic of rights.

This is, after all, the state of spectacular crimes, and between a disgraceful media always looking to hype the ratings and opportunistic politicians wanting to look tough on crime, people run around the place convinced that behind every bush lurks another Charlie Manson or OJ Simpson or Kenneth Lay. As a result, the public, like a fretful child, strikes out blindly, and supports an ever harsher system of retribution to make the bad feelings go away.

As a result, the California prison system is vast (the inmate population would be California's sixth-biggest city), corrupt (the guards are, all too often, thugs no better than the people they guard) and very expensive – $5.3 billion a year. One of the most self-damaging moves Grey Davis did was give the prison guards a big fat raise even as the budget deficit approached $10 billion. Even the tough on crime crowd thought that was uncalled for.

The parole system, which costs the state about $1 billion a year, is a colossal and expensive scam, corrupt and hugely inefficient, and with a proven track record of failure.

Arnie has put some thought into this. He would start out by eliminating parole for non-violent offenders who had done their time. Then he would start a program of reducing or eliminating remaining prison time for non-violent offenders who had behaved well in prison. His aides implied that he might push for legislation scrapping "three strikes" for non-violent offenses, and even eliminating jail for most non-violent offenses in the first place.

The wowsers are going to go nuts, of course. Next to them, Bob Dornan is going to look like a placid moderate.

If Grey Davis had made such a proposal, they would have lynched him, politically for certain and possibly literally. You would have seen horrific ads on TV showing released inmates raping, pillaging, and willfully violating CC&R codes. Fruitloops would be appearing on the O'Reilly show to claim that Democrats were genetically disposed toward crime, and that Davis should be executed before he did any further harm to the state.

And the fruitloops and wowsers will be saying similar things about Arnie.

But it won't have the same impact. You see, talk radio and Regnery Press and Faux News and all the other voices of the right wing shadow media are so ideologically bound to the GOP that it's nearly impossible for them to attack one of their own, no matter how grievous their offense. And Arnie does have that "R" after his name.

Don't believe me? Reflect on the fact that the right wing, which spent the nineties decrying budget deficits (even pushing for a balanced budget amendment in the Constitution), interventionalism, and who sneered at "criminals in the white house," have had to sit tight and take Putsch's trillions of dollars in new debt, two police actions far away that have killed hundreds of Americans – and they brought this on themselves by electing a ticket with at least five convictions between the two of them.

The shadow media will give Arnie a free pass, and that will make the yammerheads of the far right ineffectual as they always were before the free press in America got Murdoched.

So Arnie might just be able to pull this off, and I certainly hope he does. Our prison system is a disgrace, and if Dostoevski is right, and the truest measure of a society's moral worth is in how it treats its prisoners, then America is in deep, deep trouble.

But it's impossible to say how this will play out. Even with the whores in the press silenced by Arnie's party affiliation, enough conservative "get tough" voters might be angry enough to send his bond issue to defeat in March, forcing him into the one unforgivable heresy that will bring the shadow media, like the furies, down around his ears: a big fat tax increase.

It's still impossible to tell if Arnie will be a glittering success, or the biggest disaster in the state's history. But it's
unlikely that he'll come in anywhere between those two extremes. Under Arnie, life is certainly not boring.

"...too many whites are getting away with drug use." -- Rush Limbaugh, on his short lived TV show
October 5, 1995

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