Of all the departments in the California government, the employment development department (EDD) seems to have the most problems in carrying out its designated tasks. The EDD handles unemployment insurance and there are legions here in California still waiting from almost the beginning of the pandemic to get their unemployment insurance money. At the same time, a story just broke that the State of California has been scammed out of perhaps $2 billion (billion with a “B”) in connection with unemployment insurance. The state EDD is not alone and apparently Bank of America, the state EDD contractor, was also scammed and some of the scamming was supposedly carried out by prisoners incarcerated in the California penal system. What conclusions can we draw from all of this? As I see it, there is both good and bad in this scandal. One of the goals of incarceration is the rehabilitation of prisoners and the opportunity to learn a trade. In this regard, they have been wildly successful because apparently there are legions of very competent IT consultants who will soon be available to the public once they are released from custody. Another conclusion might be that unless you have some larceny in your soul there is no way to legitimately work your way through the byzantine state unemployment bureaucracy. And, lastly, something that we all know is that there are a lot of crooks in state prison and we should keep a closer eye on them.
Los Angeles has just elected George Gascón as the new district attorney (DA) for the county. Gascón has an interesting background as both a former police chief and also as the DA of San Francisco. He ran on a platform of reforming the criminal justice system, a battle that is currently going on all over the country in many locations. It’s being driven by civil rights groups and by the fact that the USA has always had among the highest level of incarnations among all the industrialized nations of the world. Those incarcerations have included large percentages of minority populations—much beyond their percentages in the general population. We also, as a country, hand down longer and harsher sentences than most of the industrialized world. Gascón was opposed in this election by many prosecutors, current and past, in the 1,200-strong LA District Attorney’s office and also by the police unions. He won handily and clearly intends to change the criminal justice system. Today, he announced his agenda and it is sweeping. It includes an end to cash bail, a ban on prosecutors looking to increase sentences (called enhancement), filing more low-level crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies and not prosecuting minors as adults, and it changes how death penalty cases are going to be handled. He’s also looking into police shootings. Gascón is really a test case for the nation because of the high visibility and size of LA County. The opposition to him will come from police chiefs in the county, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, probably many in the probation department, and the rank and file of the cops and, my guess, it is going to be large and angry. The prison industry (and it really is an industry), both public and private, and their unions, are also going to get into the battle and, ultimately, this will get to the legislature. Support will come from his voters, the minority communities and numerous civil rights organizations. Gascón’s election is more than just an outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Changes have been coming for years but I believe all of the recent shootings, with their videos, have shifted public sentiment—but how much is hard to know. There is one other factor in all this and it’s a big one: the cost of incarceration of an adult prisoner. Currently (2018-19) it costs $81,203 per year to keep an adult prisoner in state prison. That amount has skyrocketed in the last 10 years or so. For one thing, the prison population is aging, with means significantly increased healthcare cost. Prisons were also very overcrowded, which meant additional prisons had to be built because the courts stepped in and required it. Juveniles are even more expensive. The average cost for keeping a juvenile in prison (2018-19) was $284,700 per juvenile prisoner. That number has also jumped enormously in the last 10 years. With us having to spend that kind of money on prisoners, you can understand the quest to find a better, cheaper way to do this.
It’s going to be a volatile situation for a long while with, I suspect, exaggerated claims coming from both sides. Every time there is an egregious murder by some parolee, the law enforcement community PR machine is going to play it big and are going to be saying, “You see? Being soft on criminals doesn’t work!” Conversely, when some African-American or Hispanic kid gets shot in the back five or six times, we’re probably going to see criminal prosecution by the new DA against the cops involved, something that’s not happened under the previous DA. Somewhere between those two poles, perhaps we’ll see some improvements although, I suspect, it’s more likely we’ll just see more ballot propositions from one side or the other
Locally, I think everyone is just waiting for the holidays and for the new council to get sworn in on Dec. 14. The fireworks probably won’t begin until the new year.