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Gary Horton: Local robber taunts California to change

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: May 12, 2009 7:43 p.m.
Updated: May 12, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Everything financial is in turmoil.

In this recession, what we're really facing is an urgent, pressing need to renew ourselves, our businesses and our government.
We're challenged with doing more with less, to wring out waste and inefficiencies from everything.

California, in particular, faces an Armageddon-like budget crisis. Without heavy new taxes, drastic cuts or seriously substantial reform, California's budget is like a passenger train speeding its partying passengers straight off the tracks into the murky Sacramento Delta waters.

We've been forever paralyzed because the political and special interest cost of change have exceeded the absolute need for change.

We've been mired in loyalties and dogmas so long we've built a one-way track for disaster and no one has the political guts to throw down new rail. But in this recession, we either change course or deep-six the state.

This past week came an emotional local story illustrating the depth of our state's elf-created conundrums and suggesting the political courage required to overcome our state's crisis.

As reported by The Signal: "A Canyon Country man was sentenced Wednesday to 65 years and four months in state prison, a little more than three years after he was arrested for a string of armed robberies.

"His crime spree reportedly began on Jan. 3, 2006, when Johnson walked into H&J Liquor Mart in Canyon Country and robbed the store at gunpoint.

"Between then and April 4, (he) held up Canyon Market, Oak Tree Liquor, Circle K, Little Pleasures, King Liquor, Fox Liquor, Quick Stop Liquor, EZ Stop Liquor and Country Liquor. Johnson fired his gun during two of the robberies but there were no injuries, according to a sheriff's report."

A 25-year-old jacks up some liquor stores and bam, his life is flushed. Twelve years of publicly paid education traded in for 65 years of publicly paid incarceration in the slammer.

Save for "good behavior" if he stays in for the full count, Johnson will be 90 years old when he steps back into sunlight. Experts say it cost about thirty five thousand dollars a year to keep a man in California's prisons.

This small-time robber could end up costing you and me $2,275,000 to punish him for the few hundred dollars he robbed from local liquor stores. Mr. Johnson's jail time will jack up a dozen Californians' taxes for the rest of their lives, too.

I'm no bleeding heart on this. Johnson committed a serious crime, deserving serious punishment and correction. However, at a price tag of more than $2 million, "Who's really paying for Mr. Johnson's crime?" seems a reasonable question.

It's fiscal suicide to think we can afford $2 million to punish a guy for stealing $2,000. But this kind of punishment isn't rare. Where's the justice to taxpayers with a corrections system this flamboyantly costly? Johnson's biggest heist isn't the liquor store jobs - it's the tax robbery paying for his extended imprisonment. Johnson doesn't know it, but he's pulled off a multimillion-dollar heist!

California's humongous prison industry works much like other industries.

Unions fight for fat employment contracts, towns compete for new and expanded incarceration factories, and lobbyists pressure politicians to support the existing system. And our fear-based culture keeps demand for incarceration products high.

California has thus earned the dubious distinction of being a world leader in incarceration per capita. Our corrections system is like a Humvee, when what times call for is a Prius. Other states get the job done for dimes where we're spending dollars.

Some states house prisoners in tent cities. Some states use GPS monitoring for small-time parole violators instead of returning them to prison. Some states require nonviolent prisoners to "earn their way" and pay restitution by working on ranches and farms and in prison factories.

"In toil you shall eat ... all the days of your life. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground ..." - Genesis.

Work is honorable and builds skills and character.

I like the prison farm idea. In a state where we struggle for sufficient legal farm workers, might it be smart to reduce prison head count to increase farm workers?

Why not have non-violent prisoners pay their keep and save cash for their eventual release? Who's got the guts for such radical, but cost-effective change? We'll need politicians braver than the sort we've seen.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson's $2.275 million price tag taunts us that we need change fast. And there's similar crime throughout the state budget. So will California politicians take advantage of the opportunities for constructive change this budget crisis presents?

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port" appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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