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October 12, 2006

The (unrealized?) backdrop for Cunningham

I noted in this post about the Cunningham oral argument (which has prompted great comments) that a number of Justices seemed concerned with the potential practical impact of finding California's sentencing system unconstitutional.  These questions implicitly assumed that, from a policy perspective, California's sentencing scheme was sound.  But, as this new interesting commentary, spotlights the reality of sentencing and corrections in California isn't so sound:

Jerry Brown and Chuck Poochigian do not agree about much.  But both of these candidates for attorney general say that the way California criminals are sentenced and do their time needs changing.  If Brown, the Democrat, former governor and now mayor of Oakland, and Poochigian, a Republican state senator from Fresno, agree that the current system is a threat to public safety, maybe it's time for the rest of us to listen.

The problem, the candidates agree, is that most crimes now come with sentences set by law. Convicts serve their terms and are then released back to society, even if they are more dangerous when they come out than when they went behind bars.... With sentences for each crime determined by the Legislature, lawmakers trying to look tough on crime have passed bills lengthening sentences and adding time for complicating factors, such as carrying a gun during the commission of a crime. But the politicians have largely ignored the tougher question of what happens when those convicts get out of prison, as most inevitably do.

The parole system, which is supposed to ease the transition of inmates back into the community, is a farce. The state releases more than 120,000 inmates every year, but nearly 70 percent quickly violate the conditions of their parole and are returned to prison. These violators on average serve an additional five months and are then released again. "It's a revolving door," Poochigian said recently. "The system's not working very well."...

The state's nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission, which evaluates the effectiveness of government programs and policies, long ago recommended that California create a sentencing commission with the power to restructure the state's system of punishment, subject to approval by the Legislature. The commission's charge would be to protect public safety, tailor punishments to fit the crime and foster responsibility in inmates by creating meaningful incentives for them to change their behavior.  Other states have used this technique with some success.  Maybe it's time for California to follow their lead.

Some related posts on California's sentencing and correction problems:

October 12, 2006 at 06:24 AM | Permalink

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