Calif. Prison Guard Union Keeping Quiet on Propositions

No involvement in efforts to strike down death penalty, soften "three strikes" laws


"We're just going to sit over here and count our money this time."

Even though three of California's November propositions are about criminal or sentencing issues, one of California's powerful unions, representing prison guards, has been quiet. Via the Sacramento Bee:

In a bygone era, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association would have unleashed a campaign carpet-bombing on a Nov. 6 ballot initiative that repeals the state's death penalty and another that softens the "three-strikes" sentencing law that has become the union's legacy.

But this year CCPOA has spent relatively little on politics. It hasn't even taken a stand on the three-strikes measure, Proposition 36.

"We've taken some different positions than we've taken in the past," said union spokesman JeVaughn Baker. "It's not like the old days, when CCPOA championed every bill that was tough on crime."

Prop. 36 would change the state's "three strikes" law to require the third strike to be "serious or violent" in nature in order to trigger a life sentence. Prop. 35 would increase criminal penalties for human trafficking. These proposals (in addition to Prop. 34's death penalty ban) would ordinarily get some visible activism.

But these measures have been all but ignored in the midst of the massive media blitzes for rival tax increases Prop. 30 and Prop. 38, as well as the battle between conservative groups and unions over the paycheck deduction regulations of Prop. 32.

Reporter Jon Ortiz attributes the decreasing activism to a federal court mandate to decrease prison population in California. There's a cap on the state's prison population at 110,000, 25 percent less than a year ago. The union's population has dropped 10 percent as prisons downsize staff in response to the reduction of the number of prisoners:

This year the union has given $350,000 to the campaign supporting Brown's tax proposal and spent another $350,000 on ads opposed to another measure, Proposition 32, which would ban payroll-deducted money from politics.

It's given nothing to campaigns to defeat Proposition 34, the death penalty measure, or Proposition 36, which softens three-strikes.

A spokesman for the group fighting to keep capital punishment on the books, Mitch Zak, said the campaign "remains hopeful that they will contribute to preserve the death penalty."

As Ortiz describes, they also have other internal expenses related to a defamation suit by a former member and payments to reimburse the state for members doing union business full-time.

They also have good reason to keep their mouths shut in the midst of an election cycle focusing on taxes: California residents aren't happy with how much prison guards are paid. The latest Reason-Rupe public opinion survey of California residents specifically asked about state prison guard benefits. The results speak for themselves:

The average state prison guard gets around $104,000 a year in base salary and benefits, not including overtime. In your opinion, would you say California's correctional officers are overpaid, underpaid, or paid about the right amount? 

  • Overpaid: 53%
  • Underpaid: 6%
  • Paid about the right amount: 38%
  • Don't know/Refused: 3%

Read the whole poll here.

Some other current polls have support of softening the "three strikes" law ahead 72 to 17 percent, while ending the death penalty is currently losing 42 to 48 percent.

The Reason Foundation has also written a voter's guide to California's propositions here, for any Golden State libertarians looking for some insight.