Why Is California Fighting the Release of Non-Violent Inmates? Cheap Labor.


California has had a prison overcrowding problem for years and has been ordered, repeatedly, to reduce the problem, so bad it has been determined to be cruel and unusual punishment.

California hasn't done a particularly good job at meeting goals (maybe the recent passage of Proposition 47 might help). Federal judges have ordered them to expand the parole program to let more folks out and determined that the state had not implemented an order from all the way back in February.

The Los Angeles Times reported the order, along with this rather interesting explainer of why the state was resisting letting prisoners out early:

Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.

Prisoners' lawyers countered that the corrections department could hire public employees to do the work.

So, yeah, that's a pretty horrifying argument for keeping people in overcrowded prisons. Adam Serwer followed up over at BuzzFeed, and Harris is pulling a page from President Barack Obama's playbook. She says she had no idea this was going on:

"I will be very candid with you, because I saw that article this morning, and I was shocked, and I'm looking into it to see if the way it was characterized in the paper is actually how it occurred in court," Harris told BuzzFeed News in an interview Monday. "I was very troubled by what I read. I just need to find out what did we actually say in court."

Serwer identifies the actual attorney responsible for the argument as Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney. His argument extends even further than what the Times reported. California uses thousands of prisoners to help fight wildfires, each paid $2 a day. In a roundabout fashion, releasing prisoners early could reduce the number of firefighters they'd have available. Read more here.

The feds did not find the arguments compelling. To me, what's fascinating (and scary) is what's going to happen when the state does indeed have to hire hundreds, possibly thousands of new public employees to do the work they were getting on the cheap. These employees will, of course, be unionized, well-paid (in comparison with both the prisoners and what they'd get in the private sector) and would qualify for some very nice pensions that would put California even further in debt. It could possibly demolish Gov. Jerry Brown's (already inaccurate) claims the state no longer has a budget deficit.

Oh, and as a reminder: California raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour in July. It goes up to $10 an hour in 2016.