California AG Admits Her Office Screwed Up on Prison Labor

California Attorney General Kamala Harris, considered a real rising star with a big future either on the federal bench or in electoral politics, is quite upset that attorneys in her office argued in a case that the state can’t afford to release inmates early because they benefit from prison labor.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris told ThinkProgress Wednesday she is concerned her department created a perception that the state’s prisons have a goal of “indentured servitude.” Harris was responding to revelations that lawyers in her office argued in court without her knowledge that a program to parole more prisoners would drain the state’s source of cheap labor.

“The way that argument played out in court does not reflect my priorities,” she said, adding that she fears state lawyers taking that position will create more distrust in the criminal justice system. Harris worried that heavily policed communities may suspect the state has an “ulterior motive,” especially when it seems “the penalty may not be proportionate to the crime.”

“The idea that we incarcerate people to have indentured servitude is one of the worst possible perceptions,” said Harris. “I feel very strongly about that. It evokes images of chain gangs. I take it very seriously and I’m looking into exactly what needs to be done to correct it.”

In a new chapter in California’s years-long battle over how and when to reduce the population of its unconstitutionally crowded prisons, lawyers in Harris’ division pushed back against a federal order to expand an early parole program, arguing that it would deplete their stock of prison labor, especially inmates who fight wildfires.

Harris told Buzzfeed she was “shocked” and “very troubled” to discover this, and told ThinkProgress on Wednesday that the argument was counterproductive. “It’s important for us to be constantly vigilant in developing and nurturing relationships of trust with communities that are policed and impacted by criminal justice policy,” she said.

I’ve really liked some of what I’ve seen from Harris. She has bluntly called the war on drugs a failure, for example. I would expect her to ask that the filings with these appalling arguments be rescinded and refiled.

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  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    What? They use prisoners to fight forest fires? Why are we wasting good American criminals on this, when there are plenty of illegal immigrants they can drop on the fires instead? [And as a bonus, if they ever do, I can complain about them eye-legals sneaking over the border and stealing our criminals’ jobs]

  • anubisprime

    It evokes images of chain gangs. I take it very seriously and I’m looking into exactly what needs to be done to correct it.”

    What needs to be done is to fire the lawyers that promoted that ‘argument’ it is fuckin’ barbaric and has no place in any penal reform system.

    Better still send the cretins to prison so they can benefit the state by doing something useful…like sowing mailbags or better still …

    ‘The crank. This was a large handle in each cell, with a counter. The prisoner had to do so many thousand turns a day. (Warders could tighten up the crank, making it harder to turn: hence their nickname “screws”)’

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Has anybody run the numbers (publicly) about just how much it would cost the state to hire free people to do the work its convicts presently perform for pennies?

  • caseloweraz

    …lawyers in Harris’ division pushed back against a federal order to expand an early parole program, arguing that it would deplete their stock of prison labor, especially inmates who fight wildfires. (Emphasis added.)

    This says California saves about $100 million per year using inmates to fight wildland fires. They are low-level offenders who earn $2 a day, and two days are taken off their sentences for every day they spend in the field.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    caseloweraz “This says California saves about $100 million per year using inmates to fight wildland fires.”

    I can’t see how that is possible. Fifty, a hundred bucks at most. There can’t be that many forest fires in prisons.

  • ianeymeaney

    “A program to parole more prisoners would drain the state’s source of cheap labor.”

    Cheap prisoner labor works for North Korea, I don’t see the problem here.

  • David C Brayton

    Jeebus, who approved that argument in the first place? He must be left over from the days when Ronald Reagan was governor.

  • jnorris

    Note to the California Office of the Attorney General and all law schools in the state: Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

    And yes the same to my state of North Carolina.