20th February 2003

Column 36

There has been a downward spiral of the economy over the past two years and it looks like it will be getting a lot worse, before it starts to get better. As a result of the poor economy, it has caused a lot of states to have large deficits in their budgets. For instance, in California the experts predict anywhere from between $25 to $35 Billion dollars that the state will have as a deficit. As a result, the Governor has proposed numerous cuts for programs in the state. For instance, the Governor cut the funding for a food program to help senior citizens who have a hard time making ends meet. There have also been cuts in education so the already bare bones education system in California has had to be cut back even more then it already was. Evidently there have been cuts in almost every state program across the board. The largest cuts are in the social programs that help those who need it the most. The Poor.

The one interesting thing about this is the only budget that wasn't cut is the one for prisons. In fact, the state prison budget had a one- percent increase for this year. It is just incredible to me, to think the state thinks increasing the budget for prisons takes priority over education for children, or providing services for the old and the poor.

With all the talk about the budget and how to save money, I thought it was interesting there wasn't any talk at all, about how much it costs the state to have the death penalty. I don't have the figures available, but the death penalty is incredibly expensive to have (for the states that have it).

As I said, California isn't the only state with a large deficit in the state budget and many other states are having to make cuts. I think it was the state of Kentucky that made cuts by releasing a number of prisoners from prison. The prisoners who were released were those with only a short time left to serve in their sentences or those with minor offences. I thought it was a logical solution to solving their budget problem. On the other hand, I couldn't help but wonder why it was, when the state had a balanced budget, it was for the public's safety to keep all these guys in prison. But as soon as they needed to make budget cuts, suddenly these prisoners were no longer a threat to public safety. Of course, the Right Wing types will claim the public safety is in jeopardy now, but I have a different take on that. I think these were all prisoners who didn't really belong in prison in the first place and as long as the state had the money, it was okay to keep them locked up. But as soon as there was a budget crunch, suddenly the state decided that maybe these prisoners weren't a danger to society after all.

Of course, the Governor of California will never release prisoners who have just a little bit of time left to serve, or release those with minor offences. He is terrified it will harm his political career. But I am sure Kentucky isn't the only state with prisoners who could be released and not be a threat to society. I have to wonder how many children's education's will suffer, or how many needy people will not get the help they need, because the state of California feels it needs to keeps the prison population the same.

It is interesting to see how there are some politicians like the former Governor Ryan of Illinois who showed enormous courage by commuting the death sentences of all the people on the Illinois death row. On the other hand, there are Governor's who don't have the moral courage to even let out those with lesser sentences, or minor offences, in order to save money for educating children and helping those who are needy.

On a different note, I have talked before, about the different standards for the rich and poor in the legal system. I think a good example of this was with the case of this actress, Wynona Ryder. She was arrested a couple of years ago for stealing thousands of dollars from a store in Beverly Hills. She had a trial, which was in the media quite a bit. The crime she was convicted of was shoplifting. But the state also charges people who commit the same exact crime with a form of robbery or burglary. As a result, they end up serving a number of years in state prison. I think Wynona Ryder received a sentence of probation for a year, or something like that. If I don't have the details exactly right, it isn't my intention. I don't have the details at hand, but I think I have the facts more or less correct regarding her case.

Another example of this disparity is the fact that there are guys in California prisons who are serving sentences of 25 to life, in some cases, 50 years to life, for offences much more minor then what Wynona Ryder was convicted of. It is the result of the three strikes law in California. I heard about one man, who is serving a sentence of 25 to life for stealing a few videocassettes of children movies, so his children would have some presents on Christmas and their birthday. The only difference between this guy and Wynona Ryder (as far as the crime is concerned) is, Wynona Ryder stole thousands of dollars worth of goods and this guy stole goods with a value of around one hundred dollars.

In one of the many ironies with the legal system, this man was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison (meaning he isn't eligible for parole until he has served at least 25 years) for shoplifting about one hundred dollars worth of goods, but Wynona gets probation for trying to steal thousands of dollars worth of goods. The irony is that Wynona Ryder was one of the supporters of this victims rights group who helped pass the law in California (the three strikes law) which the man who was sentenced to 25 to life was sentenced under. Wynona had one of the founders of this victim's rights group come to her sentencing hearing in a show of support for her. Evidently he couldn't make it to the sentencing of the guy who got 25 to life. Maybe he couldn't pry himself away from preening in front of the TV camera's and giving inane quotes to the media long enough to do that.

The three strikes law of California is in front of the US Supreme Court right now. They are reviewing a couple of California cases to see if the sentences are too harsh. I think the cases are all involving guys who were sentenced to 25 years to life (or more) for such crimes as stealing a pair of blue jeans and stealing batteries. Things that must be a real danger to society for them to receive sentences like that. This is where a large portion of the prison budget is going. For keeping people like this locked up for 25 to 50 years and all the expense of things like the children’s education and providing help for the needy.

That is all I have to say for this one. I hope to be back to talk with you soon.

All the best to you.
Take care,