California has come to the end of the line in attempts to delay the inevitable with the states overcrowded prisons. The U.S. Supreme Court this week rejected Gov. Jerry Browns prison appeal, the second rejection in three months.
That should focus everybodys minds on the task at hand getting the states prison population from 120,000 inmates to 112,000, and sustaining those levels over time.
The man to take the lead on that task is Brown himself. For that, wed like to see a return of the crusader of a decade ago. In February 2003, when he was mayor of Oakland, Brown blasted away at the states sentencing system.
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 states prisons as postgraduate schools of crime and recidivism.
The solutions are readily apparent and have been for three decades. Work by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Population Management, the Corrections Independent Review Panel and the Little Hoover Commission point to the solution that has worked in other states: a permanent and independent sentencing commission made up of appropriate members from the judicial, corrections and criminal justice fields, and the public.
Legislators, too, have introduced bills to establish a California sentencing commission since the 1990s.
Such a commission 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. As sentencing commissions have done in other states, they would help to depoliticize sentencing getting the state away from the cycle of drive-by sentencing bills, driven by reactions to sensational one-time events.
The U.S. Supreme Courts definitive denial gives California two major choices: Rethink who goes to prison for how long, with a sentencing commission. Or launch an expensive new prison building boom, like the 21-year, 22-prison building binge that began in 1984.
In an Oct. 12 veto of a drug sentencing bill, Brown promised to examine in detail Californias current sentencing structure. Californians should hold Brown to that pledge and press him to look at successful state sentencing commissions across the country, with the aim of establishing one in California. That is the best way that Brown can undo the abysmal failure of the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act he signed in 1976.
California today has more than 1,000 felony sentencing laws and more than 100 felony sentence enhancements spread across 21 sections in the California Penal Code. We need a new, simpler organizing framework that has a positive impact in reducing crime and reoffense rates.