Is sentencing reform possible?

New Brown appointment could signal willingness to look at reform

by Brian Leubitz

Gov. Brown’s pick to run the prisons system, Jeff Beard, has some experience in the field; he ran Pennsylvania’s system for more than nine years.  That’s all well and good, but there is an interesting note in his background:

Beard is not shy about voicing opinions on where the criminal justice system fails. He told Pennsylvania lawmakers that heavy reliance on incarceration of low-level offenders “has proven to have limited value in maintaining public safety.”

In a 2005 commentary, Beard called on the corrections community to “rethink who really belongs in prison.” He sought an end to popular “scared straight” programs he said actually increase the likelihood released inmates will commit future crimes. “We must have the will to put an end to feel-good and/or publicly popular programs that simply do not work,” Beard wrote.(LA Times)

For years, former Sen. Gloria Romero and others tried to get some attention on this issue, to little avail. Despite the huge issues with overcrowding, there wasn’t the real traction to get our sentencing system overhauled with anything nearing a sane process. Maybe this is a kick in the pants for this process.

If we are to really refocus our spending on the priorities that actually matter to Californians, and are going to make our communities safer, we have to do that by actually trying to make them safer. We have to really rehabilitate prisoners, not merely warehouse them. We have to get them out of the system, and prevent the massively expensive cycle of recidivism.

When that cycle is broken, we both save money and get better results in our communities. It won’t be easy, but it is a necessary task.

9 thoughts on “Is sentencing reform possible?”

  1. Sorry

    Every time you say Sentencing ‘Reform’ it sounds like

    ‘Soft on Crime’

    It sound like a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for burglars and pickpockets and shop lifters

    It kind of means ‘legalizing’ low level crimes

    Is grafitti a ‘victimless crime’ ??

    How about vandalism ?

    I guess it means that Californians have to ‘Understand’ ‘the roots’ of criminal behavior

    I DON’T Like the sound of this

  2. But,Frisco, that assumes that incarceration is the only way to deal with all crimes.  There is a lot of evidence that our approach to incarceration does not diminish crime but actually helps increase it both by destroying communities from which inmates come and also by the failure of prisons to do any sort of effective rehabilitation (and if you look at the long history of prisons there has been little to suggest that they work that way).  Moreover, prisons are incredibly expensive and divert needed investments from schools, roads, communities etc.  Part of the mess that California and large parts of the country has gotten themselves into comes from the equation that prisons are the only effective tool to lessen crime (or even to punish) that politicians and various interests have been promulgating for the last 40 years.

  3. I tell this story often. But it seems appropriate to tell it yet again as part of this discussion.

    Some years, I briefly served as editor of a magazine targeted to California’s law-enforcement community. One of my jobs as editor was to interview a law-enforcement official for each edition. I interviewed a public defender, a police chief, and a county sheriff. I wasn’t surprised when the public defender said our system of incarceration didn’t work. But you could have knocked me over with a feather when the cops did.

    I expected them to come out with the tough-guy lines we’ve all heard from politicians for years. But, as the sheriff said, “Politicians just say that to get elected. They don’t know what they’re talking about. But county sheriffs do because we’re in charge of the county jails. And any others you talk to will agree with me.”

    In summary, what they said was this:

     * Most of the people they arrest have social issues like no degree, no job skills, a substance-abuse problem, or a domestic-violence issue. These are not addressed in prison. So prisoners are likely to re-offend.

     * These issues would be better addressed, and more cost-effectively addressed, before these people break the law. Early intervention would also save pain and suffering for crime victims and their families, as well as families of the offenders. Social intervention is also cheaper than prison.

     * Once a parent or older sibling is jailed, younger children are more likely to do jail time because of the hardships it creates in the family.

     * There are some people who, for whatever reason, “are just bad.” They need to be kept out of society permanently.

    In summary, taxpayers have been duped by politicians who’ve found that tough-on-crime rhetoric gets them elected, and by private prison operators who are paid by the head and so make more money if we lock up more people. They’re the ones that routinely pay to sponsor tougher sentencing laws. It’s a good investment for them.

    Countries like Denmark, that have lower rates of incarceration, shorter sentences, and no death penalty–do not have higher rates of crime–but lower ones. Their focus is on treatment and rehabilitation. And their recidivism rates are a fraction of ours.

    If you’re just after punishment, no matter what the cost or efficacy, then you won’t care about all of this. If you want a safer society, you should.  

  4. After someone commit a crime, they go through a process to determine the best sentence.  There are lots of tools, but the main question, from a policy standpoint is “what is the point”.  For some it is punishment.  For Bernie Madoff, there is no rehabilitation or public safety issue, or deterrence.  We want someone like that punished.

    For a drug addict who steals to support a habit, punishment may be appropriate, but unless treatment and rehabilitation are somewhere in the mix, we can bet the farm the habits will continue.

    There are some dangerous, violent people who need robe in prison.  It’s not about punishment or rehabilitation.  It’s about public safety.  In time, those people are generally less dangerous.  Not always, but generally.

    Deterrence is thought to be a goal of the criminal justice system, but I think that most who commit crimes don’t anticipate capture.  But I do think that there is a general deterrent benefit, though limited.

    So we have punishment, rehabilitation, public safety and deterrence.  Lets find the best judges who can find the best mix and give them the flexibility to exercise judgement.

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