R.Reese, Cal Poly Pomona, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, CA), Opinion, March 12, 2006

Politics of Self-interest in Corrections System

The recent resignation of the state prisons chief, Roderick Q. Hickman, and the race riots in Los Angeles County’s Pitchess Detention Center in Calstaic have highlighted the recalcitrant problems plaguing California’s corrections system.

Hickman stepped down two weeks ago after serving the post he held for more than two years, stating that he did not see the courage or will needed to make the state’s prison system more than a revolving-door warehouse for felons. He said that "special interests we’re up against are too powerful to get much done in the current environment.” This resistance, coupled with a lack of political support, led to Hickman’s decision to step down. He was ultimately a victim of various self-interests.

Founding Father James Madison states, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” Madison fundamentally believed that we should have institutional safeguards on self-interests.

Self-interest explains the woes of one of the most inefficient correctional systems in the nation. It also explains why there are not substantive reforms being implemented. Who are the self-interested stakeholders connected to our corrections system?

• Politicians are self-interested. Since the 1988 "Willie Horton” presidential campaign, nearly all politicians, conservatives and liberals alike, have been fearful of being perceived as being soft on crime. Consequently, during the past two decades politicians have embraced hyper-punitive sentences that are glaringly disproportionate to the crimes. In efforts to get elected politicians universally infuse their campaigns with "tough on crime” rhetoric.

• The public is self-interested. The public wants criminals locked away for a long time. Easily manipulated by fear campaigns, the public is quick to embrace counterproductive policies such as the state’s Three Strikes Law until one of their family members becomes the victim of disproportionate sentencing.

• The governor is self-interested. He has recently embraced prison reforms, not because of his altruism; he led the Proposition 66 fear campaign that rejected a revision of the state’s Three Strikes Law. The governor has embraced prison reform because he has to deal with the fiscal disaster of an $8 billion corrections system, which is increasingly more inefficient with each taxpayer dollar spent on it. His reform agenda has been muted of late – we are in an election year for him.

• District attorneys are self-interested. Prosecutors, many with aspirations of becoming judges and politicians, have exacted an incalculable toll on the minority community. It is their unchecked discretion in the criminal justice system and their lack of sensitivity that has helped to punish, humiliate and control a significant minority population. They sustain their bravado and build an aura of toughness when they lock individuals up for indeterminate periods.

• The California Correctional Peace Officers Association is self-interested. The CCPOA is the primary engineer behind California's hyper-punitive corrections policies. No other entity is responsible for constructing so many tough-on-crime policies. In fairness to the CCPOA, it is in their interest to advocate incarceration over drug treatment programs and punishment over rehabilitation. >From their perspective, it makes sense to advocate for policies that maintain high recidivism rates rather than reducing them. They preserve their jobs and maintain an important function in society by incarcerating individuals. >From a big-picture perspective, however, society is not benefiting from their selfish motives.

• Corporations are self-interested. Prison construction is now a central part of the U.S. economy. During the past two decades, corporations and rural communities have become the primary beneficiaries of the incarceration boom. The prison economy has disproportionately exploited people of color. Hundreds of goods and services are required to operate a prison. Big corporations are increasingly competing for the opportunity to enter this profitable enterprise.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the "get tough on crime” mantra became the central theme of both conservative and liberal politicians. Though politically expedient, the "punish, punish, punish” philosophy for confronting criminal activity has proved to be shortsighted and counterproductive.

California is only now beginning to see the consequences of two decades of callous, hyper-punitive policies. It is counterintuitive to spend billions of dollars on punishment and incarceration but only a fraction of that amount on rehabilitation or preventive measures, such as K-12 education; preschool, after-school, and recreational programs; and job training.

The original design of our representative democracy was for the public to elect a select group of astute and sensitive individuals to act on behalf of the common good, not self-interest. Madison warned us in Federalist Paper Number 10 of "Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs,” who might compromise the tenets of our democracy. Some 219 years after Madison published his famous essay, the state’s corrections system is in shambles because of the very reasons he warned us about. Various stakeholders must somehow transcend the "politics of self” to live up to the vision that Madison had for this great nation.