Sentencing Reform in CA?

Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't overstating matters when he declared a state of emergency in California's prison system. The question now is whether the state has the political will to solve the problem that its failed "lock 'em up" policies have created.

The creation of new prisons seems likely, but the governor and lawmakers are also seriously contemplating broad changes to the parole system and the establishment of a sentencing guidelines commission — anathema to some just a year ago — like those used by other states to reduce overcrowding and its costs.

Guidelines may only worsen overcrowding if, as in the federal system, they prevent judges from imposing rationally merciful sentences. The state should start by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and by looking for alternative ways to punish drug offenders and nonviolent criminals.

Here's a look at the problem:

Overcrowding is so severe that 16,000 inmates are assigned cots in hallways and gyms; last month, the state began asking for volunteers to be moved to prisons out of state.

The system’s medical program is in federal receivership and much of the rest of the system is under court monitoring. Cellblocks are teeming with violence. Seven of 10 inmates released from prison return, one of the highest rates in the country.

The state has the largest number of parole absconders, roughly 20 percent. ... The system houses 173,000 inmates — second-place Texas has 152,500 — and has an $8 billion budget.

Here's the genesis of the problem:

Its population explosion is in large part an outgrowth of a general increase in the state’s population, its unusual sentencing structure and parole system, a legislature historically enamored with increasing penalties, and ballot measures like the three-strikes initiative.

Further, most rehabilitation programs have been eliminated from the system in recent years, which some criminal justice experts believe has increased the rate of recidivism. ...

Under laws passed in the 1970s, ironclad sentences for crimes are set by the legislature, with little discretion left to judges. Looked at simply, people sentenced to prison for three years get out in three years, whether they have behaved, gone to school or stared at the wall.

Once out, prisoners are assigned to parole and can be sent back to prison for automatic sentences for technical or criminal violations.

Here are the barriers to a more rational policy:

The corrections officers union, among the state’s most powerful, has been historically resistant to reducing the prison population. Conservative lawmakers and the governor have resisted any change that smacks of sentence reduction, and their liberal counterparts have been loath to be tarred as soft on crime.

Sentencing commissions are touted as a solution, but the federal experience suggests that they can be part of the problem. Still, giving commissions real tools to use as alternatives to incarceration -- increasing resources for community supervision and treatment programs -- could contribute to a more rational system.

Of course, the California District Attorneys Association thinks any solution must "increase sentences for some offenders." Don't they understand that ever-increasing sentences have caused the crisis that California now faces?

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    Legislation (none / 0) (#1)
    by squeaky on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 09:59:32 PM EST
    Simple, eliminate all the nonviolent drug laws. Put the money into effective treatment and education.

    It is basic human instinct.

    Arnie shoud be able to figure out that one since he is such an animal.

    squeaky' s on to something (none / 0) (#2)
    by cpinva on Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 12:14:40 PM EST
    here's something else basic:

    the more crimes you legislate, the more criminals you will create. just as gas expands to fill the space available, so will criminals be created, to fill the criminal acts available to them.

    i would suggest a commission be established to completely review the state's criminal code, and recommend elimination of those acts deemed no longer worthy of the title. i suspect every state has this same problem, contributing to the ever expanding number of prison beds needed.

    as well, their educational systems are a great source of criminals: if you get no education, or a shoddy one, statistically you stand a much greater chance of ending up a guest of the state's penal institutions than if you get a good education.

    unfortunately, both of these solutions require hard work, and don't make for 30 second sound bites, come november, so i doubt we'll be seeing them any time soon.

    Part of California's problem is using... (none / 0) (#3)
    by Bill Arnett on Mon Dec 11, 2006 at 12:45:00 PM EST
    ...citizen initiated propositions to enact things like the "three strikes and you're out" law.

    These propositions are rarely thought out well, written well, and don't take into account the unintended consequences of passing bad laws by ballot box instead of having experienced legislators with research staffs write the laws.

    The "Three strikes" proposition was particularly poorly written and has resulted in even non-violent felons being sentenced to life in prison for offenses such as stealing a loaf of bread.

    Laws made by ballot box suck.

    consider basic facts before proposing reforms (none / 0) (#4)
    by richmck on Sun Jun 03, 2007 at 11:54:09 AM EST
    You really should consider a couple basic prison overcrowding facts before proposing prison reforms:

    *    Overcrowding does not involve inmates serving long terms for serious crimes. There is plenty of room for all such offenders - none will ever be released due to overcrowding.
    *    The actual 16,600 prison bed shortage  exists only because thousands of less serious offenders and parole violators, serving terms of less than a year, have been diverted to prison due to the long term, very severe county jail bed shortages . These short term offenders occupy about 30,000 to 40,000 prison beds, causing overcrowding.

    The 40,000 prison bed construction package will cost taxpayers about $6.2 billion for construction and $1.4 billion annually for the 30 to 40 year life span of the new beds. It is not needed.  When feasible, prison overcrowding is resolved without construction. Governor Reagan reduced the inmate population by early release and closing one of the state's prisons without significant problems . Simply increasing inmate work time credits  for selected low risk inmates would provide immediate prison overcrowding relief, reduce annual operating costs by about $.5 billion and avoid spending any of the $7.7 billion, not an insignificant savings.