California Attorney General Kamala Harris said Wednesday she was concerned people would believe authorities had an “ulterior motive” for keeping people behind bars. Harris’ comments came a week after the Los Angeles Times reported that lawyers for her department had argued against paroling more eligible prisoners because “prisons would lose an important labor pool.”
As Paige St.John of the LA Times reported, federal judges last Friday ordered California to implement a new parole program.
Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.
Prisoners’ lawyers countered that the corrections department could hire public employees to do the work. Continue reading…
This week Harris told Buzzfeed she was “shocked” to read that lawyers for her department had made the arguments. On Wednesday ThinkProgress’ Alice Ollstein asked Harris about her department’s legal arguments. Here’s the recording of that interview
“The way that argument played out in court does not reflect my priorities,” she said, adding that she fears state lawyers taking that position will create more distrust in the criminal justice system. Harris worried that heavily policed communities may suspect the state has an “ulterior motive,” especially when it seems “the penalty may not be proportionate to the crime.”
“The idea that we incarcerate people to have indentured servitude is one of the worst possible perceptions,” said Harris. “I feel very strongly about that. It evokes images of chain gangs. I take it very seriously and I’m looking into exactly what needs to be done to correct it.”
Harris also talked about legalizing marijuana, the “school to prison pipeline,” and Proposition 47. (For more on Prop 47 check out this Prison Complex post)
Harris also said she hopes to prevent people from entering the prison system in the first place. “There’s no question there’s a school to prison pipeline,” she said. “We should have the goal of ending the pipeline, shutting it down. Let’s break it down to its discrete parts, and let’s take it on with gusto and make some progress. I’ve chosen to focus on elementary school truancy.
Harris also praised California voters for passing a ballot initiative to reclassify several non-violent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, which is already allowing thousands of prisoners to reduce their sentences and, in some cases, be released early. Harris said the measure will save the state $150 to 200 million dollars a year, and promises the savings will go “directly to mental health, truancy, services for victims of crime.”
But the state’s massive prison system remains unconstitutionally overcrowded, and the current administration has blown off many deadlines set by courts to remedy the situation. Protests also continue over the state’s use of long term solitary confinement, the pepper spraying of inmates with mental illnesses, and unsanitary conditions that have led to the death of some prisoners. Continue reading…