« Mark you calendar for ASKS, a big alternative sentencing summit next month in DC | Main | Prez Obama signs into law the "International Megan's Law," and group immediately files suit against passport scarlet letter requirement »

February 9, 2016

Is California conducting an "unprecedented experiment in mass forgiveness"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the headline of this lengthy new Washington Post article, which suggests the Golden State has become a unique criminal justice laboratory.  Here are excerpts:

[Jose] Gonzalez is among thousands of felons benefiting from a grand experiment, an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history.  In California, once a national innovator in draconian policies to get tough on crime, voters and lawmakers are now innovating in the opposite direction, adopting laws that have released tens of thousands of inmates and are preventing even more from going to prison in the first place.

The most famous is a landmark ballot measure called Proposition 47, which in 2014 made California the first state in the nation to make possession of any drug — including cocaine and heroin — a misdemeanor.  More astonishing is the state’s decision to show leniency toward violent offenders, including murderers like Gonzalez.

For example, the state has ordered parole hearings for longtime inmates convicted of committing violent crimes before they turned 23, requiring authorities to consider anew whether immaturity at the time of the inmates’ offense argues for their release.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has approved parole for roughly 2,300 lifers convicted of murder and about 450 lifers sentenced for lesser offenses — a revolution in a state that released only two lifers during former governor Gray Davis’s entire four-year term.  And more reforms could be in store. Last month, Brown unveiled a ballot measure that, if approved by voters in November, would grant early release to nonviolent felons who complete rehab programs and demonstrate good behavior.

Progressives across the nation have applauded California’s U-turn. “There is a gathering sense that the public is considerably less punitive than people had thought,” said Joe Margulies, a professor of law and government at Cornell University.

But with crime in some of California’s largest cities ticking up after years of sustained decline, many law enforcement leaders and victims’ advocates say the state has gone too far. “Our hope was folks getting out of prisons are going to come out and be model citizens,” said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance. “Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that.”...

So far, 250 inmates have been released under the Youth Offender Parole law, most of them violent offenders.  As many as 16,000 more remain eligible.  Meanwhile, a study by Stanford Law School found that Proposition 47 had unlocked the cell doors of nearly 4,500 prisoners since taking effect in late 2014.

Sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors speculate that Prop 47 has contributed to a recent rise in crime and homelessness in major California cities, arguing that the law eliminated a useful billy club: the threat of a felony conviction to steer addicts into treatment.  “It’s a vicious cycle,” said Kirk Albanese, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.  “You’ve got an addiction, we are not holding you accountable, and you’re back into the cycle of using. How do you support that habit?  Stealing.  Our burglaries are up, car theft is up, break-ins are up — they are all up.”

Hilary Chittick, a veteran judge for the Superior Court of Fresno County, said Prop 47 has “decimated” her ability to force addicts into treatment. “The public had a house with a leaky roof and bad pipes,” she said. “So they blew up the house.”

Prop 47 supporters acknowledge the problem and say efforts are underway to address it.  More drug courts, for instance, are opening their doors to misdemeanants as well as felons, said Prop 47 co-author Lenore Anderson, executive director of the advocacy group Californians for Safety and Justice. “If you think that you need a stick in order to mandate treatment, that option is available with a misdemeanor,” Anderson said.  But Prop 47 supporters reject the notion that the ballot measure contributed to localized spikes in crime.  Early reports indicate that recidivism among inmates released under the full range of reforms has been low....

In general, more than half of inmates released from California prisons — 54 percent — return to prison within three years. Among lifers paroled under Brown, the Los Angeles Times found, fewer than 2 percent have committed new crimes.  Among the 2,100 inmates released after the softening of the state’s three-strikes law, only about 6 percent have returned to prison. Michael Romano, director and co-founder of the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project, attributes the success of this cohort in part to extensive rehab, but also to a kind of forgiveness psychology.

Because I do not live in California, it is hard for me to judge whether the state is genuinely engaged in "mass forgiveness" when passing laws designed to reduce its prison population and the severity of its sentncing laws. But there is little doubt that all sorts of significant criminal justice reforms are now playing out in California, and it will be quite valuable and important for criminal justice advoates and researchers to watch and study crime and punishment developments in the state in the months and years to come.

February 9, 2016 at 09:59 AM | Permalink

Comments

Not relevant to this post, but just saw this headline that explains better than all the gnashing of teeth why the death penalty is falling into disfavor:


"Former Texas Prosecutor Disbarred For Sending Innocent Man To Death Row
Charles Sebesta lied and presented false testimony against Robert Carter for the murders of six people.
02/09/2016 04:52 am ET
Reuters
JON HERSKOVITZ

A Texas legal panel voted on Monday to disbar a former prosecutor for sending an innocent man to death row by presenting tainted testimony and making false statements that undermined the defendant's alibi.

The Board of Disciplinary Appeals appointed by the Texas Supreme Court upheld a state licensing board's decision to disbar Charles Sebesta for his conduct in convicting Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years in prison on charges of setting a fire that killed six people before being freed.

Posted by: Dave from Texas | Feb 9, 2016 10:38:28 AM

"Among the 2,100 inmates released after the softening of the state’s three-strikes law, only about 6 percent have returned to prison."

One reason they have not gone back to prison is because they can't. After Prop 47, many former felonies are misdemeanors, so no prison. Plus, in my reading of the Stanford Prop 36 reports, Romano's data ignores several things, including the following true event. A Prop 36 releasee committed a new felony and during the police attempts to arrest him they ended up killing him when he produced a weapon. Didn't return to prison, so counted as a success. Also, Romano doesn't count those who are currently charged with new offenses.

Also, most Prop 36 releasees cannot be returned to "prison" for a PRCS violation. They go to county jail.

I would like to know how many of the 2100 aren't dead, aren't committing misdemeanors (that used to be felonies) and have not committed a PRCS violation or are not currently pending charges. It won't be anywhere near 94%.

Posted by: David | Feb 9, 2016 11:16:35 PM

Everytime I go to Mass they talk about foregiveness. Then they pass the plate.

Posted by: JackMehoff | Feb 11, 2016 9:40:04 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB