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August 11, 2013

"California’s Continuing Prison Crisis"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial.  Here are excerpts:

California has long been held up as the land of innovation and fresh starts, but on criminal justice and incarceration, the Golden State remains stubbornly behind the curve.

Over the past quarter-century, multiple lawsuits have challenged California’s state prisons as dangerously overcrowded.  In 2011, the United States Supreme Court found that the overcrowding had gotten so bad — close to double the prisons’ designed capacity — that inmates’ health and safety were unconstitutionally compromised.  The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates, to 110,000, or to 137.5 percent of capacity.

In January, the number of inmates was down to about 120,000, and Gov. Jerry Brown declared that “the prison emergency is over in California.”  He implored the Supreme Court to delay a federal court order to release nearly 10,000 more inmates.  On Aug. 2, the court said no.  Over the furious dissent of Justice Antonin Scalia, who reiterated his warning two years ago of “the terrible things sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order,” six members of the court stood by its earlier ruling.  California has to meet its goal by the end of 2013.

The state claims that releasing any more inmates would be a threat to public safety, as if the problem were too little prison space.  In fact, California’s problem is not excessive crime, but excessive punishment.

This was obvious years before the Supreme Court weighed in.  Since the mid-1970s, California’s prison population has grown by 750 percent, driven by sentencing laws based largely on fear, ignorance and vengeance.  The state’s notorious three-strikes law, passed in 1994, is only the most well-known example.  Because of it, 9,000 offenders are serving life in prison, including many whose “third strike” was a nonserious, nonviolent offense — in one case, attempting to steal a pair of work gloves from a Home Depot.

Californians have made clear that they no longer accept traditional justifications for extreme sentencing.  Last November, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 36, which restricted the use of the three-strikes law for nonviolent offenses, even for current prisoners. It wasn’t just about saving money; exit polls showed that nearly three-quarters of those who supported the proposition said they felt the law was too harsh....

If California wants to avoid another legal battle over its overcrowded prisons, there are two things it can do right away.

First, it should establish a sentencing commission to bring consistency, proportionality and data-based assessments to its laws.  Twenty-one states, the District of Columbia and the federal government already have such commissions, and they make a difference. In Virginia and North Carolina, both of which had prison overcrowding, sentencing commissions helped focus scarce resources on housing the most violent offenders, limiting prison growth without jeopardizing public safety.  Criminal justice reform advocates have unsuccessfully pushed for such a commission in California. If the state is to get away from its irrational and complicated sentencing, it needs a commission, and it needs to insulate it as much as possible from the political actors who have contributed so much to the state’s current crisis.

Second, the state must do more to help released prisoners get the re-entry and rehabilitation services that already exist across California.  Inmates are often released with no warning to friends or family, with no money, no means of transportation and no clothes other than the jumpsuits on their backs. It is no wonder a 2012 report showed that 47 percent of California prisoners returned to prison within a year of their release, a significantly higher rate than the national average....

California’s prison population is consistently among the largest in the country. While it presents an extreme case, its problems are representative of what is happening in prisons and jails in other states. If California would redirect its energy from battling the federal courts to making the needed long-term reforms, it could once again call itself a leader.

August 11, 2013 at 01:25 PM | Permalink

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