Justice

California Attorney General Says Her Office’s Defense Of Prison Labor ‘Evokes Chain Gangs’

CREDIT: AP Images

California Attorney General Kamala Harris told ThinkProgress Wednesday she is concerned her department created a perception that the state’s prisons have a goal of “indentured servitude.” Harris was responding to revelations that lawyers in her office argued in court without her knowledge that a program to parole more prisoners would drain the state’s source of cheap labor.

“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.”

In a new chapter in California’s years-long battle over how and when to reduce the population of its unconstitutionally crowded prisons, lawyers in Harris’ division pushed back against a federal order to expand an early parole program, arguing that it would deplete their stock of prison labor, especially inmates who fight wildfires.

Harris told Buzzfeed she was “shocked” and “very troubled” to discover this, and told ThinkProgress on Wednesday that the argument was counterproductive. “It’s important for us to be constantly vigilant in developing and nurturing relationships of trust with communities that are policed and impacted by criminal justice policy,” she said.

Harris declined to answer whether the state is reevaluating the appropriateness of relying on prison labor for key public safety work like firefighting, but she called Wednesday for a broad re-examination of the policies that led to the US having a higher prison population than some countries.

“The war on drugs was a failure,” she said at a policy conference hosted by the Center for American Progress. “These so-called ‘tough on crime’ approaches have resulted in a nearly 800 percent rise in incarceration nationally. It’s just not smart to have those approaches. Instead of keeping them because of a blind adherence to tradition, we should ask, ‘What is the return on investment?'”

But Harris has not been as strong on drug policy reform as some of her constituents would like. She declined to join in other states’ efforts to remove marijuana from the DEA’s list of most-dangerous substances, and issued a somewhat mixed statement when federal agents raided compliant medical marijuana dispensaries in California.

With California voters possibly deciding the future of recreational marijuana in 2016, Harris is focusing her attention elsewhere — particularly on programs to reduce recidivism, as California has one of the highest rates in the nation with 70 percent of released prisoners returning in three years or less. “It’s a broken system. It has wasted taxpayer money. I feel strongly that we need reform,” she said, citing programs California is pursuing to support ex-offenders in finding work, housing and education.

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.