This week in Realignment: October 18, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

After a few slow news cycles, this week saw a major development happen in the form of  the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Gov. Jerry Brown’s second appeal of the same Court’s population restraints that mandated the now two year old legislation which transferred low level offenders from state prisons to county jails.

This makes the recently extended late-January deadline to get state prison populations down to the Court’s desired 137.5 percent of capacity much more solid. It also means that stopgap measures involving privately contracted facilities staffed by state employees will at least be part of the solution, if not entirely, in finding a home for just under 10,000 more state prison inmates.

The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board had some blunt commentary for Gov. Brown, saying that the latest ruling should finally allow the state to focus on the task at hand and hearkening for a throwback to Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland:

In candid, refreshing testimony before the Little Hoover Commission, Brown said that the sentencing system that he signed into law in 1976 had turned into an “abysmal failure.” A sentencing system that gives every inmate the same term whether they improve their behavior and life skills or do nothing and cause trouble provides little incentive for individuals to reform themselves.

Brown denounced the state’s prisons as “postgraduate schools of crime” and recidivism: “It’s a treadmill; it’s a merry-go-round; it’s a scandal,” Brown said of the state prison system. Further, he said that changes in sentencing must be accompanied by an expansion of programs to ensure that prison time is “not just idleness” and a chance to “do push-ups.”

They bluntly state that the choice is either install a sentencing commission, which would “serve as a central clearinghouse for all sentencing data, devise sentencing guidelines and regularly assess all proposed sentencing law changes for their potential effect on crime and state resources,” or go on a(nother) jail building spree.

The latter would buck growing national trends, state budgetary concerns and a mountain of research from the past decade that flies in the face of incarceration as a catch-all solution for the myriad of problems those arrested typically face.

Sentencing commissions are nothing new in California, but getting a law implementing one through both houses of the Legislature would be as proposals to create one are routinely shot down. The latest occurrence happened with the compromise package that became SB 105.

If California leadership once again fails to recognize the data on current sentencing policies and how they impact prison population by acting as one of the main front-end drivers of overcrowding, anything else offered cannot be effectively called a “long-term” solution. It is that simple.

As the Bee points out, California has “1,000 felony sentencing laws and more than 100 felony sentence enhancements spread across 21 sections in the California Penal Code.” It’s time to trim and simplify. It is also time for the state to become a vocal advocate of split sentencing and to do what is necessary to help larger counties build the capacity in probation to handle the increased caseload that a increase in split sentencing would mean.

Smaller counties like Santa Cruz and Napa are ahead of the curve as larger counties, where any reform is a slow moving barge, struggle to quickly move out of the status quo. Meanwhile, the state is still mired in a legal battle over the care of mentally ill inmates.

Believing in evidence-based practices and the notion that some people who wind up in court don’t belong in jail, as Sen. Steinberg does, is only half the battle. The moment someone is fully committed into the corrections system is when they are sentenced and that dictates the rest of their path. If someone is mentally ill or addicted to drugs, that path shouldn’t necessarily lead to a jail cell.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson