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Lock 'Em Up Legislation Means Prisons Gain Clout

In California, guards form a potent lobby to protect their interests

THE collective madness that has consumed California is now devouring the nation. In the post-cold-war era, politicians have discovered crime-baiting as a substitute for red-baiting. Just as the fear of communism propelled the unimpeded expansion of the military-industrial complex, crime-baiting has produced the explosive growth of the correctional-industrial complex, also known as the crime-control industry. Those who disagree with its agenda of more prisons are branded criminal sympathizers and victim betrayers. Since no politician will risk the ``soft on crime'' label, an unending spiral of destructive policies is sweeping the country.

Nowhere is the insidious ascent of the correctional-industrial complex more embodied than in the crime bill signed by President Clinton. Hailed as a sensible response to the current wave of crime hysteria, the bill earmarks $23.2 billion out of $30 billion for law enforcement and prisons. In addition, the bill increases the number of death-penalty crimes and lowers the age at which some youths can be tried as adults.

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What is shocking about this bill is the absence of any real discussion about the merits of spending $23 billion for more police and prisons when Congress rejected a jobs bill last year for a similar amount.

The remaining Washington progressives were easily silenced with a few dollars set aside for pet prevention programs, while the real oratory was left to right-wing extremists such as Sens. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas and Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah. With no timidity, Senators Graham and Hatch and their alliespounded the legislation for investing too little in law enforcement and too much in wasteful social programs.

Not stopping there, Hatch argued against the bill's ban on certain assault weapons by telling voters that fear of assault weapons was deterring biker gangs from taking over small rural towns. In the end, their efforts resulted in a scaling back of prevention monies and a compromise on the assault-weapons ban.

The crime bill legitimizes and validates our most brutal and violent collective instincts. As we become more accepting of state-imposed brutality, what will our response be when the current wave of crime legislation fails to reduce crime? Will we be willing to tolerate ever-increasing levels of repression and cruelty against individuals and communities that are perceived as different and less deserving?

If history is an indicator, the likely answer is yes.

Repression and brutalization will be further promoted by the institutions that are the primary beneficiaries of such policies. As California increased its prison population from 19,000 to 124,000 over the past 16 years, 19 new prisons were built. With the increase in prisons, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the guards' union, emerged as the state's most powerful lobby.

Leading the charge for punitive criminal justice policies, the CCPOA spends large amounts of money to defeat political candidates it deems soft on crime. These tactics have been highly effective in silencing opposition. Of the last 44 CCPOA-proposed bills, 38 were enacted by the legislature. As the percentage of the state budget devoted to higher education has fallen from 14.4 percent to 9.8 percent, the share of the budget for corrections has risen from 3.9 percent to 9.8 percent. The average salary and benefits for prison guards in California exceeds $55,000 - the highest in the nation. This year the CCPOA, along with the National Rifle Association, has directed its substantial war chest to promote the passage of the ``three strikes, you're out'' initiative that would triple the current size of California's prison system.

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The same dynamics that evolved in California will certainly result from Clinton's crime bill. As more resources are poured into the crime-control industry, its power and influence will grow. The result will be an inevitable reallocation of public resources from crime-prevention to crime-repression technology.

In her study of the self-destructive tendencies of declining civilizations, historian Barbara Tuchman defines folly as government policy that is perceived as counterproductive but is nevertheless adopted - even when an alternative exists. In this instance, current crime policies are recognized by most criminologists and politicians as counterproductive, but they continue solely for political reasons.

The crime bill is our folly. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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