Will Budget Deficits Result in Much-Needed Prison Reform?

Will Budget Deficits Result in Much-Needed Prison Reform?

Thursday, September 3, 2009




Will Budget Deficits Result in Much-Needed Prison Reform?

With deficits mounting and a court order requiring the end of prison over-crowding, the California Assembly has passed a scaled-back version of a Senate prison reform plan that would reduce the state's bloated prison population by 27,000 and save $1 billion.  However, the plan falls short of the needed $1.2 billion in cuts mandated by lawmakers' state budget agreement and fails to fully comply with a court order that California reduce its prison population by 43,000 inmates because of overcrowding and unconstitutionally-low levels of prisoner services.  

Fixing a Failed Prison Policy:  California houses over 154,000 inmates in 33 facilities that are designed to hold 84,000, just over half of the current prison population.  California spends $49,000 per inmate per year, one of the highest levels in the country, but has one of the worst recidivism rates at 70%.  Aside from being poor public policy, a leading concern in the current prison reform debate is that the state's costly and ineffective criminal justice system is siphoning off funds from vital programs like public education.  Adding to the mounting prison costs is a reactionary three-strikes and you're out policy that voters passed in 1994.

The Assembly plan would reduce the number of prisoners under parole supervisions following their prison terms by focusing on the most serious and violent crimes, raise the threshold for what crimes are considered felonies, and give inmates the chance to reduce sentences by completing educational or rehabilitation courses.  A major sticking point between the Assembly and Senate is the Senate's inclusion of a commission to review sentencing guidelines and make changes that would be implemented unless lawmakers acted to stop them, a process that supporters say has worked in other states.  And in fact, many states, including conservative ones, have recently controlled corrections costs by instituting reforms to improve community corrections and reinvest prison spending on programs that reduce recidivism.

Further Recommendations by Advocates: In related news, the corrections department announced it would close the state's largest youth prison and send offenders to local facilities.  This is a key goal for a coalition of prison reform advocates, known as the People's Budget Fix, who want to close all 6 youth facilities, diverting half of the budget for these facilities to counties to serve youth offenders and to a state enforcement office to ensure best practices.  Advocates say these steps could save $200 million annually and better serve the public and youth offenders.  Other recommendations made by the advocacy coalition include:

  • Converting more petty offenses to misdemeanors, which would cut prison spending by $700 million annually,
  • Localizing the response to simple drug possession and other low-level drug crimes, and handling drug infractions through community service, treatment, or probation, which would save the state $1 billion annually,
  • Replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, which would save $1 billion over five years, and
  • Reforming the outmoded Three Strikes law to apply only to violent offenses, which would achieve five year savings of $5 billion.

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By: JULIE BERO       

Defeating Ultrasound Requirements to Protect Women's Health Access

In a significant decision last month, an Oklahoma County District Court ruled that a 2008 anti-choice law violated the state constitution.  The law in question (SB 1878) was more burdensome than any prior bill regulating pre-abortion ultrasounds passed in the country, requiring women to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a doctor describe fetal characteristics before consenting to the procedure.  Opponents argued that the law invades a woman's right to privacy and violates doctors' freedom of speech.  As Stephanie Toti, the lead attorney on the case from the Center on Reproductive Rights said, “[the law] demeans women’s capacity to make decisions and threatens abortion providers with arbitrary criminal sanctions.” 

Opponents Mobilize Against Ultrasound Bills:  The decision highlights the introduction across the country of similar bills.  In 2009 sessions, legislators rejected ultrasound bills in 18 of the 22 states where they were introduced.  While some bills required doctors to offer an ultrasound to women seeking an abortion, others mandated that women receive information detailing where they could undergo an ultrasound and abortion counseling.  Such requirements invade a woman's right to medical privacy, intimidate health providers, and distrust women to make personal health choices. 

Progressives beat back right-wing bills that could have been damaging to women's health access.  Doctors and health services providers agree that pre-procedural ultrasounds are medically unnecessary, an argument that worked to defeat some ultrasound bills.  Legislators worked with medical experts and members of local choice organizations in Wyoming to convince House committee members that the state should not require a woman to view an ultrasound before consenting to an abortion.  Wyoming legislators voted down HB 151 after personal testimony from Rep. Sue Wallis, who said that "[t]o have the state impose this obligation on them to go through with this unnecessary procedure is an insult to me as a woman, and an insult to me as a United States citizen."  Advocate groups experienced similar successes in defeating ultrasound legislation in Virginia and Kentucky.  After a pro-choice lobby day organized by Planned Parenthood of Virginia that attracted hundreds of activists, legislators rejected HB 2579, and coordination by the ACLU of Kentucky pushed legislators to defeat SB 79 (HB 191). 

The Harm to Women in States Passing Ultrasound Laws:  Although many ultrasound bills were defeated in 2009, legislation was enacted in Kansas (LB 238), Nebraska (LB 675), and North Dakota (HB 1371) and passed in at least one chamber in five other states.  All of the bills directed health providers to offer a woman an ultrasound prior to an abortion, but variations included requirements for a 24-hour waiting period after the viewing and listening to the fetal heartbeat if heart monitoring equipment is used.  By law, North Dakota providers must additionally report the number of women who agree or decline the ultrasound and decide to have an abortion after viewing the images. The Guttmacher Institute, which tracks and supports efforts to increase access to reproductive health services across the country, asserts that ultimately, "the requirements appear to be a veiled attempt to personify the fetus and dissuade a woman from obtaining an abortion."

Ultimately, ultrasound and waiting period requirements are not only an invasion of privacy, but also an excessive fiscal burden.  The Center for Reproductive Rights reports that young, low-income, and rural women are particularly affected by such laws because they often have fewer financial and transportation resources and can have difficulty finding childcare or taking a day off from work.  South Carolina legislators voted down SB 437 after members of the Friends of Planned Parenthood of the Lowcountry sent over 100 letters to state legislators, detailing how the law placed an undue burden on women, particularly those in rural or low-income communities.  Working together, pro-choice legislators and advocates can continue to beat back regressive bills and ensure that women from all communities have equal access to necessary care.

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Bipartisan Committee Forms to Push for Voter Registration Modernization

Perhaps signaling a new phase in efforts to modernize the country's antiquated voter registration systems, a new group of unlikely bedfellows has come together to help win support for an overhaul that would put government in charge of proactively registering voters, and allowing voter registrations to be portable within states.  Spearheaded by two former general counsels of presidential campaigns, Trevor Potter (McCain 2000 & 2008) and Marc Elias (John Kerry 2004), the Committee to Modernize Voter Registration (CMVR) plans to promote registration modernization and be a resource for those on Capitol Hill.

Both Mr. Potter and Mr. Elias say that their experiences dealing directly with voting systems throughout the country have led them to support fundamental change.  As Mr. Potter expressed the impetus for bringing the group together, “Throughout our campaign work, we saw firsthand the inefficiency and needless expense in our paper-based registration system. ... Both parties recognize that having a 19th Century voter registration system for the 21st Century is not where we want to be."

Joining Mr. Potter and Mr. Elias are a roster of distinguished former elected officials and election experts, including Democrats Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Harold Ford Jr. and Republicans Sen. John Danforth and Rep. Susan Molinari.  The group also includes leaders of the Pew Center on the States, the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute.  Coinciding with the press conference announcing the new group, Pew released a new issue brief on voter registration modernization, and gave a commitment to help states modernize their registration systems.

CMVR is not putting forth a specific proposal for how to modernize the system, but they believe that,

"the best way to modernize the voter registration system would be to use existing databases to automatically register voters... Additionally, the Committee is advocating for a system that will allow a registration to be portable so that voters are not forced to re-register when they move within a state, and will include a fail-safe mechanism for any Election Day problems.  The Committee advocates a commonsense, technologically-based approach to solving many of these problems. For instance, by using existing government databases to automatically register voters, they assert, states and local governments could save scarce financial and staff resources that would otherwise be spent shuffling, entering and reviewing reams of paper registration forms. "

This is also the approach that the Brennan Center for Justice, Progressive States Network, other election reform advocacy organizations and a number of academic election experts have advanced since last winter. After the election in November many commentators and election observers noted that many of the problems people were encountering at the polls, and the allegations of fraud that were being made by conservatives, could be resolved if we had a modern voter registration system.  When research examining how many people were prevented from voting in 2008 due to these problems indicated that is was 4 million voters, the momentum for change continued to grow.  We are excited about the groundswell of support this issue is garnering as it indicates that pressure for change will now be coming from both sides of the aisle.

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Report: Confronting the "Gloves-Off" Economy of Broken Labor Standards

In Confronting the Gloves-Off Economy: America's Broken Labor Standards and How to Fix Them, researchers detail how growing numbers of employers are breaking, bending, or evading long-established laws and standards designed to protect workers, from the minimum wage to job safety rules to the right to organize. This "gloves-off economy," no longer confined to a marginal set of sweatshops and fly-by-night small businesses, is sending shock waves into every corner of the low-wage -- and sometimes not so low-wage -- labor market. 

In a report by some of the same authors,  Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America's Cities, published as a collaboration by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, the Center for Economic Policy Research, the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, and the National Employment Law Project, includes telling statistics on abuses in the low-wage workplace:

  • 68 percent of the workers interviewed for the study had experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week.
  • Under employer pressure,only 8 percent of those who suffered serious injuries on the job filed for compensation to pay for medical care and missed days at work stemming from those injuries.

Both reports recommend more rigorous laws for enforcement against employers violating the law and highlight successful campaigns around the country to stand up for low-wage workers.

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Research Roundup

Principles for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class: 2009 Edition - This Drum Major Institute report reveals not only that the American middle class relies on the economic contributions of undocumented immigrants, but also that the exploitation of undocumented immigrants threatens to drive down wages, benefits, and labor standards for all low-income and middle-income workers.  The report emphasizes that any immigration policy must 1) bolster the economic contributions of immigrants as workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers and consumers; 2) strengthen immigrants’ workplace rights.

Trendlines: Ballot Integrity: A Broken System in Need of Solutions - This brief survey and analysis of ballot initiative activity around the country by the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center addresses the ballot initiative abuse, fraud, and deception that continues to plague our direct democracy system.  The report outlines solutions that states can implement to provide people with a ballot measure process that works for voters instead of against them.

It’s Time for a Better Poverty Measure - This Center for American Progress memo details how the federal poverty measure, which is used in numerous ways to set policy for low-income families, is deeply flawed. The dollar figures used to determine if families are in poverty are low and in many ways arbitrary.  It needs to be updated and improved.  The memo highlights alternative approaches that policymakers should begin to use in official measures.

More Guidance, Better Results? Three-Year Effects of an Enhanced Student Services Program at Two Community Colleges - A new report from MDRC finds that low-income students who were provided with more support services and modest stipends improved their academic achievement-- emphasizing that access to affordable and accessible education has limited results without counseling services and other support.

Please email us leads on good research at


Will Budget Deficits Result in Much-Needed Prison Reform?

People's Budget Fix - Recommendations for Prison Reform
Pew Center on the States - Public Safety Performance
Council of State Governments Justice Center - Justice Reinvestment Project
Center for Community Corrections

Defeating Ultrasound Requirements to Protect Women's Health Access

The Center on Reproductive Rights - Defending Human Rights: Abortion Providers Facing Threats, Restrictions, and Harassment
The Center on Reproductive Rights - Engaging Policymakers in the States
The Guttmacher Institute - State Center: Ultrasound Requirements
The Guttmacher Institute - State Policy: Requirements for Ultrasound
Planned Parenthood of Virginia - Reproductive Rights Report for the Virginia General Assembly

Bipartisan Committee Forms to Push for Voter Registration Modernization

Committee to Modernize Voter Registration
Partisan Rivals Unite to Modernize Voter Registration System (Press Release)
Pew Center on the States - Bringing Elections into the 21st Century: Voter Registration Modernization
Brennan Center for Justice - Voter Registration Modernization
Progressive States Network - Voter Registration Modernization


The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Executive Director
Caroline Fan, Immigration and Workers' Rights Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Broadband and Economic Development Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Executive Administrator and Outreach Associate
Mike Maiorini, Online Technology Manager
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

Please shoot us an email at if you have feedback, tips, suggestions, criticisms, or nominations for any of our sidebar features.

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