Decoding Punishment: the Prison System in California
Updated May 12 — As Californians — both voters and legislators — ponder how to balance the state’s budget, one of the most important questions to consider is whether and how to reform the state’s prison system. And to begin to decipher that question, says UCLA History Professor Michael Meranze, they should consider an even more basic question: what exactly do we want punishment to achieve in our society?
Meranze, who has written extensively on U.S. legal history and the birth of the penitentiary in the American colonies, is one of four high-caliber speakers who participated in Prison State: Incarceration in California, a panel discussion at the Autry’s Wells Fargo theater on Wednesday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m. Also participating were Matt Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; Barry Krisberg, distinguished senior fellow and resident lecturer at the Berkeley Law’s Center for Criminal Justice; and Kelly Lytle Hernandez, associate professor of history at UCLA and author of Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (2010). An audience of about 150 people attended the discussion.
” The way that societies decide what crime means, or the way they define crime or criminals, or the way they define what’ s necessary to maintain order, is more than simply a careful calculation,” Meranze said. “When you’re looking at something like punishment, in order to really grasp it, you have to understand that it does a lot of different things in society.”
Some of those functions may be symbolic or even emotional. For example, Meranze says punishment policy has emotional angles that are expressed in policy decisions, such as the state’s gradual increase in recent years of spending on prisons even as it cuts programs within those prisons that might help inmates transition into society after their release.
“There’s a real debate about whether or not increased incarceration has had much effect on crime rates,” Meranze said. “It seems that it allows some people to feel that, ‘at least we’re locking them up.’”
Meranze says the idea of increasing incarceration, in the late 18th Century as the United States was coming into being, was actually a progressive idea.
“For many American reformers, part of the appeal was that they considered the death penalty or corporal punishment, like whipping, to be punishment geared to a monarchical society,” he said. “It was government through fear and intimidation, not through the rational motivation of citizens. They were proposing the prison in part as a symbol of what would be a rational democratic system.”
In that sense, the idea of prisons contributed to the narrative that the founding fathers and their successors were trying to build around their new nation, a narrative of positive change and democracy.
“There was a sense that this was a new way of governing,” he said. “Yes, they wanted to reduce crime. But part of the strategy also had to do with this critique of a more archaic form of government.”
Meranze believes the nation, and California, lock up too many people.
“It seems clear that we overconfine and overspend on punishment, and that we have huge number of people in prison,” he said. “The effect of that level of incarceration is to destroy communities and create all sort of unintended bad social consequences.”
As a matter of policy, relying on only punishment — the “tough-on-crime” stance — has only illusory results, Meranze said. And yet it has become the one lens through which we look at societal ills.
“The way in which imprisonment has become the fallback position for dealing with social problems or social challenges is bad in all sorts of ways,” he said. “It’s not an intelligent or thoughtful way to create a healthy society.”
He said just more than 10 percent of California’s general fund this year is going to the prison system, while 12.2 percent went
to the CSU and UC systems. He compares that with the budget for 1976-77, which allocated only 3.3 percent of the general fund to prisons and just under 18 percent for higher education.
“It costs more, considerably more, to incarcerate somebody for a year than it does to educate someone at CSU or the UC system,” he said.
In a way, California’s budget woes have provided perhaps an opening for a larger conversation about how to reform the penal system in the state, Meranze said, because people are having to reconsider their priorities in light of the need for resource reallocation.
“Because of the budget crisis, we’re now seeing interesting alliances develop in terms of politicians and critics who for different reasons are questioning this,” he said. “Conservative politicians who might not object to imprisonment on grounds of fairness now might object to it because of the budget crisis. At least it looks that way in part. There’s a real question about the extent to which our increased reliance on these institutions is socially wise, or just or economically, whether it’s a good investment.”