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How an electoral tweak is throwing California lobbyists into disarray

Sasha Abramsky takes a look at the criminal justice lobbying network in a new report.
Sasha Abramsky takes a look at the criminal justice lobbying network in a new report.

In 2012, a big shift will hit California’s electoral system: open primaries. Open primaries, brought in by voters through 2010′s Proposition 14, will allow the top two vote-getters in any primary for state office to advance to the general election, which means we could see districts with two Republicans or two Democrats competing in a general election. California’s biggest lobbying groups, among them some of the biggest law enforcement groups in the country, are grappling with what this new system will mean to them, in a state that’s undergoing a shift in how the public views our traditionally tough-on-crime approach. I sat down with Sasha Abramsky, a reporter for the Nation, Rolling Stone, and other publications, to talk about how this change might play out. Abramsky published a report earlier this week with the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice called “Sacramento’s K-Street Lobbyists: The criminal justice inner circle.” In that piece, Abramsky analyzed the influence of California’s largest criminal justice lobbys, like the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), and how they’re approaching this shift in electoral politics.

How much are these lobby groups responsible for the tough-on-crime policies that have led to the prison overcrowding crisis in California? 

I think they’re a major part of a complicated problem. You can’t reduce it to one group or another group being solely responsible. You have to look at them as a whole. So what’s happening over the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s is that groups like the CCPOA and groups that represent police officers and district attorneys and so on have become more powerful, that’s undeniably true. They’ve become more powerful at least in part because the politics around crime and punishment becomes more high profile. So it becomes an issue that a lot of politicians want to get a part of, it becomes an issue that dominates public discussion in the 1990s and early 2000s. Now within that milieu, when there’s room for conservative political discourse on crime and punishment, it gives an opportunity for groups like the CCPOA to flex their muscle. And they do it very well. And if I represented the CCPOA that’s what I would be doing in the 80’s or 90’s or 2000’s. They had an opportunity and they used it. But to say that it’s all the responsibility of these lobby groups, I think that oversimplifies it a bit.

Give me a sense of what some of the biggest lobbying groups are and what their origins—where they came from.

 Well I think the giant in this conversation is the CCPOA. And that stands for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. It’s the group that represents, basically, prison guards. And that group emerged about 30 years ago but it really became a powerhouse in California politics in the 1990s and the early 2000s. And it became very powerful because as its membership grew, its ability to influence elections by throwing independent expenditures into campaigns grew proportionally. Another big group would be the District Attorneys Association. And then there’s another big group that represents police chiefs. There’s another group that represents sheriffs. And then the last group, which I think is impossible to ignore because of the emotional power it carries is Crime Victims United. The biggest victims rights group in the state. And that group, again, came to prominence in the early 2000’s. It was  seeded with money from the CCPOA. And it’s been a very potent lobbying force because it represents, or claims to represent, victims. And victims are obviously the most vulnerable, the most emotionally fragile part of this equation. And if you can say, look, I represent victims and this is my desire, this is victims’ desire, it carries a lot of weight politically because it carries emotional appeal. And so I think that understanding the politics of Crime Victims United, that’s a huge piece of this puzzle.

So CCPOA has kind of been changing its tune a little bit in recent years. They didn’t oppose realignment, they signed onto an amicus brief at the Supreme Court. I guess Crime Victims United is their other arm, in some ways. But do you think that organization has fundamentally changed at all?

I’ve written on criminal justice policy and on criminal justice practice for about 15 years at this point and at the beginning of that period, the CCPOA was almost invariably a force of reaction in criminal justice police. It almost always pushed an agenda that was simplistic, that was based around sound-bites. Under the new union leader, Mike Jimenez, that’s changed somewhat. I think in part it’s because they’ve ceased to be as important under Schwarzenegger than they were under other governors, and they’ve recalibrated a little bit. So I think in part, it was still pragmatics of 35, 40 years of increased criminal justice expenditures. And the way it was explained to me by one of the CCPOA staffers is look, we’re part of the community, too. And we see what happens when there’s not enough money for schools and for roads to be built. If you want to sort of find the knee-jerk crime and punishment response these days, you go to Crime Victims United. But for a more nuanced response around realignment, around a whole bunch of criminal justice reforms, surprisingly, the CCPOA is actually repositioning itself on a whole bunch of issues.

In Josh Page’s recent book on the CCPOA, he says that Crime Victims United is still being funded by the CCPOA and there’s almost this sort of– and I may be overstating this– that because of the collaboration between the CCPOA and Crime Victims United, that CCPOA will take on this more reasonable voice in public and that Crime Victims United will continue to assert the other side.

I think there’s an element to that—that there’s a good cop, bad cop. And it’s a routine they’ve worked on very well over the years. So there’s certainly an element to that. In public, the CCPOA is now more moderate. Behind the scenes, Crime Victims United is still lobbying to prevent a lot of reforms that are probably necessary at this point. So I think there is an element to that,  but at the same time, I think there are philosophical differences.  And then the open primary system and the redistricting that’s going on politically. It means that he way these companies do business has changed. They’re working with less money. They’re working in a different political environment. And when it comes to the open primary, they’re working in an environment where there are going to be a whole lot more competitive seats at the primary level, certainly, than used to be the case. So you have Crime Victims United and the CCPOA and these other groups, targeting 5, or 10, or 15 key legislative races. And they influence the political process disproportionately by influencing those races. Now what you’re going to see is a whole bunch more competitive races and to influence the political process, these lobby groups are going to have to scatter their money, their influence a whole lot wider. And it’s going to result in a different way of doing business and probably a different set of political priorities.

So going back to Brown and the campaign for governor, obviously the CCPOA put a lot of money into his campaign, or against Meg Whitman. I’m wondering, as someone who observes Sacramento very closely, if you could say whether or not that influence has been apparent on the governor since he took office.

Well, the way you phrased your question, I like it, that they put money towards Brown’s campaign or against Whitman. Oftentimes, that’s the way these things come down. They don’t necessarily like a candidate but there’s one candidate they dislike more than another. And I think in this case the CCPOA was terrified of Meg Whitman because she was talking about privatizing the prison system, or parts of the prison system. And if you privatize a prison system, one of the ways private prisons save money is they break unions. They bring in non-union labor, they pay lower wages, they give lower benefits and so on. And so I think in part the CCPOA response was defensive, Brown was the lesser of two evils for them. And when he was the mayor of Oakland and the attorney general, he did go out of his way to cultivate good relationships with law and order lobby groups. And it was, I think, and interesting turnaround. Because in the 1970s and 80s when he was governor, he alienated a lot of law and order groups. He was seen as being too liberal, he appointed Supreme Court justices that opposed the death penalty, and so on.  And he suffered electorally. And I think he learned, really, to take the path of least resistance on criminal justice. You ally yourself with groups like the CCPOA. So I think they probably have gotten a return on their investment. The prison system is suffering some expenditure cuts, but far less than other parts of the budget.

So with the prison overcrowding crisis and the economic crisis, a lot of people in the reform community are seizing this moment and saying now’s the time to end the death penalty, now’s the time to try to end three strikes. Do you see a political sea change? And if so, how brief is this window for change?

Well there certainly is a window at the moment. And for many, many years reformers have been talking about the moral problems of Three Strikes. The fact that in one county, a shoplifter might be charged with a misdemeanor offense and get a month in the county jail and in another county the DA might prosecute that as a felony under Three Strikes and that person might get 25 years in jail. People have talked about the moral inequity of a law like Three Strikes, they’ve looked at the racially disproportionate impact of many criminal justice policies. But it hasn’t generally gained a lot of traction. So there’ll be small groups that are outraged, but on the larger whole, people think it’s a good thing because it keeps people safe. Even though there’s not a whole lot of evidence that our criminal justice policies do keep the public safe. But you know, there’s been a willingness to give legislators the benefit of the doubt on criminal justice policies. And now what’s happening is, people are no longer giving them the benefit of the doubt. Not because there’s been a moral sea change, but a financial sea change. There just isn’t the money in the system anymore. They’re looking at a bankrupted, or near bankrupted California. They’re looking at the cost of the prison system, which is about $10 billion a year. It’s about $44,000per inmate per year.

We’re spending a huge amount of money on a prison system that isn’t rehabilitating anyone. California has the worst recidivism rate or one of the worst recidivism rates in the country. We’re basically putting people into the prison system, bringing them back out again, waiting for them to mess up, and then we’re putting them back in again. It’s a very expensive way to deal with a host of social problems. And so there is this window where people are looking for more alternatives. So you’ve seen a move towards mental health courts and drug treatment courts. These carefully tailored courts in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles. So there’s certainly a window for creative thinking around criminal justice policy. When it comes to other issues, like the death penalty, it’s possible there’s a window to reform that, though the death penalty, while it sparks a lot of outrage and while it gets a lot of attention, isn’t one of the things that drives costs up in California. It’s a relatively small part of an absolutely enormous system. So I’d be weary of saying that this is the moment when all these grand criminal justice and moral reforms get underway. But I do think when it comes to particular policies, around drugs, around mental illness, around the length of certain sentences, that’s where we’re going to see reform. We’ve already seen it started. The governor has said there are certain low-level crimes that the state doesn’t want to get involved with anymore. They would rather send them back to the county and if the county wants to put that person in jail, so be it. If the county wants to put them on probation, they’ll put them in drug treatment, so be it. But the state is certainly looking to roll back the areas where it gets involved in criminal justice.

Rina Palta reports on criminal justice for KALW News. Through stories of those affected by the system, she hopes to bring insight to an often misunderstood, polarizing, and politicized issue. Rina came to KALW from a print background, having worked in magazines for a number of years before being pulled into broadcast while earning a masters degree at UC Berkeley's School of Journalism. Along with KALW, her work has been published in Mother Jones magazine, the San Francisco Weekly, and Hyphen magazine. Rina edits and writes for KALW's criminal justice blog, The Informant, where you can find news and analysis on all aspects of California's criminal justice world.