Sentencing reform in California: Another “let them out early” proposal?

Many people — including not a few County Sheriffs and editorial boards — blame Prop 47 for a recent surge in criminal activity


California is a strange place politically. Many years ago California had a crime known as larceny. The penalty was six months to life in the state slammer. One such prisoner was incarcerated at DVI where I worked. 

He stole a bicycle from an unlocked garage. He was also an in-your-face jerk.

When he came up for parole consideration he was an in-your-face jerk with the parole board. He was an in-your-face jerk with staff. He ended up doing more than 15 years for stealing a bicycle when murderers did seven years.

Unintended Consequences
Along came Governor Jerry Brown (version 1.0). Brown wanted to get rid of the old indeterminate sentencing law and enact a determinant sentencing law so prisoners would know when they were getting out as long as they didn’t commit new crimes that were prosecuted on while they were in custody. 

This resulted in prisoners serving longer sentences very often and the population of the prison system went up — a lot — and running the prison system overall became more costly.

Jerry Brown is again the Governor of the formerly great state of California. He has been forced recently by the federal courts to release prisoners en mass due to lack of space to house them humanely. 

Governor Brown has now decided that the state needs to move back toward (though not actually back to) indeterminate sentencing, in order to do a better job of implementing good behavior by guests of the state (more carrot, less stick). Brown admitted that he did not foresee the downstream effect of determinant sentencing on prison population.  

At any rate, Governor Brown has just announced that he will push a ballot initiative for the November 2016 ballot which would, if approved by voters, result in about 7,000 prisoners being released almost immediately on passage and a lot of others being eligible for release much sooner than they would otherwise via a much broader interpretation of good time earnings.  

More Consequences 
Brown has said that he wants to make the criminal justice system “more humane, more just, and more cost-effective.” 

That is wonderful — very warm and fuzzy — until or unless the third criteria takes control over public safety. It is easy to save money on prisons. Lock up very, very few people for as little time as you can justify to yourself. How well that works when (not if) the crime rate shoots up will be another matter entirely, but also it will be somebody else’s problem.  

There seems to be a certain amount of “buyer’s remorse” in the formerly great state of California over the recently-passed Proposition 47, which downgraded many crimes (including theft of firearms and resisting arrest with force) to misdemeanors. 

Many people — including not a few County Sheriffs and editorial boards — blame Prop 47 for a recent surge in criminal activity. That may make it hard to sell another “let them out early” proposal to the voting public. Our political ruling class just might misjudge public tolerance for crime and willingness to pay to keep criminals off the streets. 

Or not. 

It seems likely that we will see in about ten months.

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