As California goes, so goes the nation.
If that old adage still holds true, then the nation may soon see a gradual backpedaling from the criminal justice policies that have led to wholesale incarceration in recent decades. For the most populous state in the union is on the verge of insolvency–partly because it didn’t set aside a rainy-day fund during the boom years; partly because its voters recently rejected a series of initiatives that would have allowed a combination of tax increases, spending cuts and borrowing to help stabilize the state’s finances during the downturn; partly because it has spent the past quarter-century funneling tens of billions of dollars into an out-of-control correctional system. Now, as California’s politicians contemplate emergency cuts to deal with a $24 billion hole in the state budget, old certainties are crumbling.
The state with the toughest three-strikes law in the land and a prison population of more than 150,000 is facing the real possibility of having to release tens of thousands of inmates early in order to pare its $10 billion annual correctional budget. At the same time, an increasing number of the state’s political figures are challenging the basic tenets of the “war on drugs,” the culprit most responsible for the spike in prison populations over the past thirty years; they argue that the country’s harsh drug policies are not financially viable and no longer command majority support among the voting public.
Similar stories are unfolding around the country; in Washington, federal officials are talking about drug-policy reform and, more generally, sentencing reform in a way that has not been heard in the halls of power for more than a generation.
For old-time politicians, who have spent the past three-plus decades navigating the country’s roiling tough-on-crime waters, the changes are almost unfathomable. Onetime California governor and current gubernatorial hopeful Jerry Brown, for example, has spent decades trying to erase the public’s memory of his liberal tenure in the 1970s, when California’s prison population shrank to well below 30,000. As a part of that remodeling, he has assiduously courted the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, the trade union representing the state’s prison guards. Now, with his war chest flush with CCPOA funds, Brown won’t do anything to challenge tough-on-crime orthodoxies.
Yet many newer political faces view the current moment as something of an opportunity. For Betty Yee, chair of California’s Board of Equalization–the office responsible for collecting sales tax in the Golden State–the changes, especially around drug-law enforcement, can’t come soon enough.
Sitting at her conference table high up in one of downtown Sacramento’s few sky-rises, Yee has marijuana on her mind. Specifically, she has become an outspoken advocate for legalizing pot for residents older than 21. Her friend Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a former San Francisco city councilman, is pushing just such a bill in the State Legislature. Yee wants to levy fees on business owners applying for marijuana licenses, impose an excise tax on sellers and charge buyers a sales tax. Do it properly, and the state could reap about $1.3 billion a year, she has estimated. “Marijuana is so easily available. Why not regulate it like alcohol and tobacco?” she says, and gain additional tax revenue into the bargain?