Friday, January 11, 2013

California, we (still) have a problem

How much in denial is the state of California about its prison overcrowding crisis?  So much so that Governor Jerry Brown announced that it was over, and that federal court oversight should end.

But the crisis isn't over, and the real solution is one California doesn't seem to want:  fixing its draconian sentencing laws.

While this Los Angeles Times editorial frets about the state's desire to be free of federal supervision of its prison system, this column from The Guardian gets right to the painful truth:

Some progress has been made since the initial state of emergency was declared. The state prisons are now operating at the reduced rate of 150% capacity – which, apparently, is something to cheer about. Much of this reduction in numbers is due to realignment (pdf), however, meaning that many low-level and low-risk offenders have been shifted out of the state prison system and into the county jails instead.
While it's certainly cheaper for the state to have the counties pick up the tab for their excess prisoners, this strategy fails to address the systemic problems that caused the overcrowding in the first place. It should also be noted that many prisons, including the Valley State Prison for Women, are still operating at 180% capacity.
Ultimately, the state needs to drastically overhaul its sentencing laws, which continue to allow offenders to be sentenced to outrageously long prison terms that have little bearing on the offense committed. The only real sentencing reform that has taken place since the federal mandate was issued was the recent tweaking of the "three strikes" law. Only offenders who commit a serious or violent felony can be sent to prison for life under the revised law. This is a step in the right direction, but it's only a baby step. I've written previously about a 25-year-old man with a drug addiction who was sentenced under three strikes to 70 years for burglary. His sentence was recently upheld on appeal and he will not be eligible for any reduction under the three strikes modification because burglary counts as a serious felony.
In the meantime, there is plenty of scope to reduce current prison populations – so long as politicians' egos do not get in the way. Prison reform advocates have long been arguing for low-level offenders to be placed under community supervision or released early with GPS monitoring, if necessary. Using its own risk assessment tool (pdf), the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has identified 43% of the prison population as low risk. In order to meet the June 2013 deadline to reduce the prison population to the federally mandated level of 137.5% capacity, the CDCR has proposed granting early releases to these low-risk prisoners.
Perhaps California lawmakers would be encouraged by the examples of other states like New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Michigan, who have reformed their sentencing laws without seeing a public safety disaster result.  It can be done.  The only question is whether California wants to do it.