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June 15, 2011

Reviewing the "political paralysis" making California sentencing reform distinctly dysfunctional

This front-page article from the San Francisco Chronicle, which is headlined "'Political paralysis' in Calif. over prison reform," highlights effectively the political forces that ultimately culminated in the Supreme Court need to affirm the major prison population reduction order in the Plata case last month. Here is how the piece starts and some notable quotables from the piece:

As California deeply cut spending for public schools, social services and health programs in recent years, state leaders also found themselves grappling with a court order to reduce the prison population by tens of thousands of inmates.

Some civil rights groups and criminal justice experts are now seizing on this perfect storm of chronic deficits and crowded prisons to push for wide-ranging changes to the state's sentencing laws that would transform California's handling of crime and punishment. The California chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups want the state to reduce drug possession and low-level, nonviolent property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and they want more community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Yet even modest changes have trouble getting legislative support from Republicans and Democrats alike in California -- even as bipartisan groups of policymakers in conservative states such as Texas, Mississippi and Kentucky embrace sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration.

"There's a political paralysis here - people are afraid," said former state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, whose 2007 bill to create an independent sentencing commission passed the Senate but failed in the Democratic-dominated Assembly. "I think it's a false fear, but they are afraid of being labeled soft on crime, so they legislate by sound bite. They don't take up the big issues, so years pass and we are in the same predicament."...

Last month, a bill that would have given district attorneys the power to decide whether to charge marijuana cultivation as either a misdemeanor or felony -- and save taxpayers an estimated $3.5 million a year -- mustered only 24 votes in the Assembly, with much of the opposition coming from Democrats.  And Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to send low-level, nonviolent offenders to local jails instead of state prisons has prompted howls from the right. Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielsen of Gerber (Tehama County) warned of "blood on the streets," and Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster (Los Angeles County), said Californians need to "get a gun, buy a dog, and put an alarm system in."

"It's the politics of fear," said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who has had mixed results in pushing prison reforms through the Legislature.  "In times of fiscal crisis, when we are limited to a few choices, the question is how long can we afford to lock up ever more people for longer periods of time and still have funds for public education and higher education?" Leno said California's corrections budget has more than doubled as a percentage of the state's general fund spending since he entered the Legislature in 2003....

Barry Krisberg, a criminal justice expert at UC Berkeley, said the California District Attorneys Association has enormous sway over lawmakers and opposes most sentencing changes. He noted that the federal government and 23 states have sentencing commissions, which tend to increase penalties for violent crimes and decrease penalties for nonviolent offenses.

"The question is, what's wrong with us? Are we more conservative than Virginia? Are we more irrational than North Carolina?" he said.  "It's the politics, and it's the dilemma of this state. ... Unlike almost all the other states, we have been unable to get the two parties to sit down and cut a deal.  It's not the prison guards -- they are not standing in the way. It's not victims' rights groups.  It's really the District Attorneys Association."...

Politicians also fear the "Willie Horton" syndrome, Krisberg said -- a reference to the Massachusetts felon who did not return from a weekend prison furlough program and brutally raped a woman.  Then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' support for the program and response to the incident helped doom his White House bid.  "Democrats are scared of being used in the next campaign," Krisberg said. "The minute we made determinate sentencing (the law) through the Legislature, we made sentencing a political issue. That's been going on for 30 years, and it's hard to turn around after 30 years."

That's not the case everywhere, said Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States.  He said states such as Texas, Mississippi and Kentucky have taken notice of the fact "that states can reduce their incarceration rate and also have less crime."

Prior posts on the Plata ruling and responses thereto:

June 15, 2011 at 09:54 AM | Permalink


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"And Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to send low-level, nonviolent offenders to local jails instead of state prisons has prompted howls from the right."

Um, excuse me, it's not a "proposal." It is an enacted law, rammed through the Legislature without a single hearing. Its enactment negates the "paralysis" theme of the story, though, so we mustn't bother the public with that inconvenient fact.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 15, 2011 11:18:17 AM

Any "expert" who seriously claims that CDAA "has enormous sway over lawmakers" can't be taken seriously. As a long time CDAA member I know full well how often our proposals go to die in the so-called Assembly Public Safety Committee. Now if he was talking about CCPOA...

Posted by: Cal. Prosecutor | Jun 15, 2011 12:27:31 PM

The tuff-on-crime mentality prevails because of a bipartisan consensus between Big Government Liberals like Brown and Big Government Conservatives like Kent. The only difference is that Brown is at least willing to bow to pragmatism, understanding, for example, that when SCOTUS gives an order the state is obliged to follow it, while Kent would have the state thumb its nose at the high court. If we're doing a little better on the topic in Texas recently, it's only because our GOP actually includes (a minority of) small-government conservatives.

As for the lament of the Cal Prosecutor, I suspect there's enough blame to go around to include both CDAA and CCPOA.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 15, 2011 3:03:31 PM

Nothing I have written even remotely supports the assertion that I "would have the state thumb its nose at the high court."

Cal. Prosecutor is correct. The assertion that CDAA has enormous sway is preposterous. I have testified in the Public Safety committees of both houses multiple times, and every time the committee has done what the defense lawyers and the ACLU wanted.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 15, 2011 4:56:39 PM

So Kent, you support compliance with the SCOTUS ruling in Plata? How would you have CA reduce its prison population? Please be specific.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 15, 2011 7:22:45 PM

I'll give a specific example directly contradicting Kent's experience. In Verdin v. Superior Court (2008) 43 Cal.4th 1096, the California Supreme Court held that a pretrial psychological examination of the defendant by a prosecution expert was not authorized by California discovery statutes. The CDAA promptly went to the Legislature and had Penal Code section 1054.3(b) enacted, specifically to overrule Verdin and authorize such an examination.

This is just one example. Defense lawyers and the ACLU would be amused to learn that they always get their way, as Kent would have you believe.

Posted by: SRS | Jun 16, 2011 2:26:22 PM

Kent, I see you're posting a lot on Crime and Consequences today so at least I know nothing's happened to you, but when are you going to tell us what should be done in response to Plata? You say you don't support CA thumbing its nose at SCOTUS, but doing nothing - all you've suggested, while shooting down every proposal by anyone else - amounts to precisely that.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 16, 2011 3:24:33 PM

The big picture is pretty obvious and extreme.

Twenty years ago California spent about 2% of the budget on corrections and 10% on higher education. Currently, it spends about 12% of the budget on corrections and 6% on higher education.

The number of people incarcerated in California as a percentage of the population is FIVE TIMES the amount of any other civilized country and higher than any society in HUMAN HISTORY.

Sentencing is absurd across the board, the parole boards don't parole anyone, and our three strikes law is a international embarrassment.

Finally, California is in the grips of a budget crisis. Every person we release from custody saves us $50,000 per year, and ever year we shave off a sentencing guideline saves us the same amount on every future defendant.

And oh, I almost forgot, the Supreme Court has meanwhile ordered us to reduce our prison population.

So confusing... such a complicated, nuanced situation... I'm not sure what is the logical course in the public interest... :)

The time for sentencing reform has arrived. Those who oppose it will eventually pay a political price for being corrupted by the CCPOA, as this is a situation that is obvious enough for any constituent to understand.

We have been tricked into adopting extreme sentencing laws in California so that a bunch of prison guards can earn ridiculous salaries and benefits, and now we need to correct that.

Posted by: Jeremy | Jun 16, 2011 6:19:06 PM

Kent --

The person who says that you would "thumb your nose" at the Supreme Court's ruling also said that I support all state killing as inherently good in all circumstances, and that I have taken the position that the increase in incarcerating criminals is the SOLE reason for the two-decade reduction in the crime rate.

All these propositions are not merely false; they are preposterous. The person making them knows this but doesn't care. Rather than admit his lies, he just keeps right on lying.

There is no use trying to engage with such a person.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 21, 2011 5:03:21 PM

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