The Polanski Tax

California’s prison population is overflowing with old guys who no longer threaten society—like you know who. Joe Mathews on why prosecuting Polanski is the height of fiscal irresponsibility.

Want to understand why California is such a political and budgetary mess? Consider the case of Roman Polanski.

In a strange way, the attempt by Los Angeles County prosecutors to arrest, extradite, and presumably send the French-Polish film director to prison for a 30-year-old crime—having sex with an unwilling 13 year old—offers a clear example of this state’s governing myopia.

Putting Polanski in prison might serve ideals of justice, but it’d also be a crime against this state’s taxpayers. If L.A.’s district attorney doesn’t come to his senses and drop the case, the governor should step in and use his powers of commutation to end the matter.

Much like Jake Gittes, the private detective in Polanski’s Chinatown whose obsession with personal and moral questions blind him to the systemic and financial nature of the crime he’s investigating, Californians are focusing on the admittedly interesting moral questions about Polanski’s case. But the real issue it raises is fiscal.

California’s budget was busted because of unchecked growth in three big sitems: health and human services programs, tax breaks, and—here’s the one relevant to Polanski—corrections.

The state’s prison population has increased by 125 percent over the past 20 years, from 76,000 to more than 170,000 inmates. In the same period, state spending on corrections has increased more than $8 billion, or 450 percent, in the past 20 years, and now represents 11 percent of the state’s budget, up from 5 percent two decades ago.

Polanski scandal full coverageMarcia Clark: Is Polanski the New O.J.?Ben Crair: How Polanski Could Help the RightDriving that spending: the prison lobbies, most notably the state’s powerful prison guards’ union. With the union’s backing, crime victims and politicians of both parties have convinced voters to support tougher sentences—especially on repeat offenders, sex offenders, and juveniles. Longer sentences produce not only more prisoners (leading to dangerous overcrowding that was blamed for a major prison riot earlier this year) but also an older prison population.

Older people need more health care. Even with big increases in prison budgets, California has been unable to provide prison health care at a level that meets modern standards. That has forced federal judges to step in and demand costly health-care improvements and, more recently, the release of thousands of inmates from the overcrowded prisons.

But most state politicians (Gov. Schwarzenegger, to his credit, has been an exception) have resisted these federal demands in the interests of their own political safety. Far better to push California further over the fiscal cliff than risk being labeled “soft on crime.” Tough-on-crime legislators, cops, and prosecutors have led the fight against common-sense legislation to reduce sentences or release older, nonviolent offenders.

Government finances play a role, too. Prosecutors and police are local officials whose budgets are decided by cities and counties. But the prisons are a state budget item. By seeking long sentences and charging for crimes that require state prison stays, prosecutors essentially shift inmate costs from their own local governments to the state.

The result of all this? Put simply, the California prisons already have more Roman Polanskis—old folks (Polanski is 76) who committed their crimes decades ago—than the state can afford.

That said, I agree with those who believe that the 42 days he spent in custody three decades ago is far too light a sentence for his crime. But in California’s present reality, the question of whether the director deserves further punishment should be an academic one. The more important question is whether Polanski is such a threat to public safety in California that the state should spend its very limited resources to extradite him from Switzerland and imprison him here. Since he lives an ocean away, the obvious answer to that question is no.

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Putting Polanski in prison might serve might serve ideals of justice, but it’d also be a crime against this state’s taxpayers. If L.A.’s district attorney doesn’t come to his senses and drop the case, the governor should step in and use his powers of commutation to end the matter. Anyone who objects that this lets a villain off the hook might be told to forget it, and then reminded that this is…well, Chinatown.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as Justice Department reporter for The Wall Street Journal and as a city desk reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.