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January 21, 2007

Strong commentary on California reforms and the incarceration bias

As noted here, the debate over sentencing reform in California is about to get real interesting and dynamic.  Helpfully, there is no shortage of thoughtful folks keeping an eye on the action.  Over at Corrections Sentencing here, Michael Connelly zeroes in on the pervasive (and I think very harmful) tendency to assume imprisonment is the best and only way to be tough.  Here is Mike's lament about this destructive status quo bias:

Where is evidence that prison is the best option?  Seriously, where is it?  What shows that the states which imprison at the levels of the CO's, the TX's, my own OK actually have lower crime rates than the states that don't?  If they don't, then why is the option that costs us the most get such devotion?

Relatedly, the Sacramento Bee has this clear-headed commentary from Roger Warren, a former Sacramento Superior Court judge, about California sentencing reform.  Here is Warren's astute account of what sentencing reform is really all about:

Criminal cases dominate the workload of California judges, who sentence more than 135,000 felony offenders a year.  The hardest cases are not those of the most violent or dangerous criminals, or the sexual predators. Those offenders belong in prison and constitute only about 10 percent of the cases.  Cases where the law mandates a prison sentence under circumstances that a judge considers unjust are hard, but they are also rare. 

For many judges the most difficult and frustrating aspect of handling felony cases is dealing with the crushing volume of repeat offenders, most charged with nonviolent crimes, who constitute the vast majority of felony cases. Year after year, California judges sentence repeat offenders to jail and probation, and finally prison, with little hope for success in changing an offenders' future criminal behavior. Over time, many judges grow increasingly cynical and discouraged. Every day, judges see that our current sentencing policies aren't working and question whether there isn't a better way.

California's sentencing policies aren't working because, more than any other state, California relies overwhelmingly on incarceration as the answer to every crime rather than invest in meaningful adult probation services and effective community corrections programs to reduce crime. We need to put the concept of "corrections" back into the corrections profession.

January 21, 2007 at 03:40 PM | Permalink


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[T]hus far the extent of the governor's prison reform has been to add the word “rehabilitation” to the name of the California Department of Corrections and convene a press conference to display the department’s new logo.

The was right after he was elected, before the prison guard union beat him down.

Posted by: George | Jan 22, 2007 3:13:23 AM

With repeat offenders the penalty can be enhanced (for example a repeat aggravated misdemeanor can be enhanced to a class D felony with a longer sentence). A habitual offender (depending on the State) can be treated as a class B felony with a very long sentence.

In some States the reentry programs for persons leaving prison have been scrapped (if they existed in the first place) funds for aftercare in the community for persons treated in prison for alcohol and drug addiction either are not available or have been cut. Vocational training in most State prison systems is minimal at best. The job training may not be relevant to the job market outside of prisons because the labor unions do not want to compete with cheap prison labor.

Iowa has had a good community based correction system in place for many years but it is taken for granted. In Iowa there is a very long list of barriers to reentry. My studies in Iowa indicate that unemployment rates for probationers/parolees were three to four times those of the general population (this is crazy because study after study shows that stable employment is one of the most important factors in reducing recidivism). In Iowa the legislature wants the clients of the community based correction system to pay as much of the cost of supervision as possible. The client fees go up every year as does the uncollected fraction of the fees.

Posted by: John Neff | Jan 23, 2007 2:22:55 PM

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