Let’s start with some background. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the worst chief executive to grace this or any state in recent memory, with the possible exceptions of Rod Blagojevich or the guy from North Dakota who declared martial law and barricaded himself in the Governor’s mansion back in the 1930s. Every single crisis facing the state of California can be largely attributed to him, even given the structural deficiencies of the state’s government. Consider: Arnold’s cunning plan to get elected based on slashing the state’s vehicle license fee, costing the state six billion a year, would have, if you combine that with the debt service from inevitably having to borrow that money, almost equal the entire budget deficit in 2008. Having crippled the state when times were better, his “solutions” to a depression-like popping of the housing bubble (during which time he resisted stronger regulations on predatory lenders) and a cratering economy have included corporate tax breaks (to the tune of $2 billion annually, negotiated during a time of a $60 billion dollar deficit), illegal state worker furloughs and the privatization of just about every government function.

In his State of the State address yesterday, Arnold forwarded yet another cunning plan – in this one, he would set a Constitutional amendment ensuring that prison spending never increases above higher education spending. This is bumper-sticker policy, using the same kind of ballot-box budgeting and arbitrary restraints that has handcuffed the state legislature. But it’s also fundamentally dishonest, because he would get there by privatizing state prisons:

The way we get this done is to find more cost-effective ways to run our prison system and allows private prisons to compete with public prisons. Competition and choice are always good.

California spends $50,000 per prisoner.

By comparison, the ten largest states spend $32,000.

They spend less, and yet you do not see federal judges taking over their prison health care.

Why do we have to spend so much more than they do?

If California’s prisons were privately run, it would save us billions of dollars a year.

That’s billions of dollars that could go back to higher education where it belongs and where it better serves our future.

The proper reaction to historic protests against fee hikes at UC campuses, described as the tipping point by the Governor’s chief of staff, is to bring revenues in line with such critical spending. It is not to, as Assemblymember and state Attorney General candidate Ted Lieu says, turn state prisons over to Blackwater, essentially:

Religious institutions across the board condemn private prisons as both inhumane and ineffective. The Presbyterian Church USA stated that “Since the goal of for-profit private prisons is earning a profit for their shareholders, there is a basic and fundamental conflict with the concept of rehabilitation as the ultimate goal of the prison system . . . for-profit private prisons should be abolished.” Catholic Bishops in a resolution stated that “We bishops question whether private, for-profit corporations can effectively run prisons. The profit motive may lead to reduced efforts to change behavior, treat substance abuse, and offer skills necessary for reintegration into the community.

Private prisons are also dangerous, both to prisoners and to the public. In 2003 a report by Grassroots Leadership detailed a range of failures by CCA, a for-profit private prison company, including: failure to provide adequate medical care to prisoners; failure to control violence in its prisons; and escapes.

I voted no last year on the corrections budget bill because it was cutting rehabilitation programs and parole supervision, both of which will result in increased recidivism. The Governor’s current proposal is even worse. Abandoning government’s core responsibility of public safety by contracting out and injecting a profit motive will result in disastrous consequences. Our nation has already been burned by our experience with Blackwater. California cannot afford to have its own Blackwater problem.”

Lieu’s being too clever by half; he voted against the corrections bill because he didn’t want to be seen as “soft on crime” before a primary to become the state’s top cop. But he’s absolutely right in this instance.

The problem with state prisons is that 170,000 prisoners are held in jails meant for 100,000, and the recidivism rate, since rehabilitation and drug treatment are completely clogged and underfunded, is the highest in the nation. We also have an insane parole policy where the overwhelming majority of people returned to prison are going there for technical parole violations. It’s by far the worst system in the country, and THAT’S what makes it the costliest. Over the past 30 years, 1,000 laws have been passed by the state legislature on sentencing, and every one of them increased sentences. It’s a cruel and immoral system. Saving a buck by turning prisons over to for-profit corporations is not only terrible policy, it’s the epitome of what Schwarzenegger has been trying to do from the moment he reached office.

He is trying to tie this massive corporate welfare subsidy to higher education to make it light and fluffy and give it a chance to pass.

Schwarzenegger is basically desperate to get the federal government to paper over his historic mistakes and destruction of state government. It’s true that the nature of Republican obstruction and a minority veto in the legislature makes any sane response to governance impossible. But that shouldn’t let off the hook the worst, absolute worst chief executive in national history.