Timothy P. Silard

Viewpoints: Criminal justice needs fundamental changes

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A

This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spelled out what most career law enforcement leaders know, but often lack the courage to say: We lock up too many people for far too long and for no good reason, and we're doing so at great economic, human and moral cost.

Having served as a prosecutor for 12 years, I applaud and share the attorney general's passion for the changes that so desperately need to happen in our criminal justice system at all levels. Like many long-time prosecutors, judges and police, I've seen first hand that what we are doing simply is not working. I've seen the same offenders arrested, prosecuted and locked up, only to come back time and time again. I've seen low-level, nonviolent offenders return from prison and jails more hardened and posing a greater threat to our communities than when they went in. And I've seen African Americans and Latinos arrested and jailed at egregiously greater rates than whites.

We can no longer turn a blind eye to the damage being done to our communities by an out-of-control criminal justice system, nor can we ignore any longer the pervasive racial bias that threatens the very legitimacy of the system itself. Holder laid out a set of promising reforms at the federal level. They include doing away with draconian mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes; increasing the use of diversion programs that can serve as effective alternatives to incarceration; and assisting victims and empowering survivors of crime.

While such federal reforms are long overdue, we know that fundamental changes are even more sorely needed at the state and local levels. California in particular is ground zero on this issue, and the state was conspicuously absent from the list of states that the attorney general lauded as models. Other states are pioneering a shift away from an "incarceration only" approach and toward evidence-based programs and services that are designed to reduce re-offending – all while improving public safety and saving precious taxpayer dollars.

Meanwhile, the California Budget Project reports that, over the past two decades, California's spending per prisoner has increased nearly five times faster than spending per K-12 student. We spend more than $50,000 per year to incarcerate each adult offender and more than $200,000 per year for each youth the state locks up. Our state prison population has ballooned by 750 percent since the mid-1970s, leading the U.S. Supreme Court to find that California's prison crisis constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. And although African Americans make up less than 7 percent of our state's general population, they constitute 30 percent of our prison population.

While California has made some steps in the right direction – for example, working to reduce prison overcrowding and shifting supervision of many nonviolent offenders from the state to the local level – much more needs to be done.

First and foremost, we should stop over-incarcerating low-level drug offenders and the mentally ill, and instead mandate treatment programs and job training so they get on track and stop offending. Simple possession of tiny quantities of drugs is a felony in California; those offenses should be reduced to misdemeanors with a maximum sentence of a year in jail.

The state also needs a "sentencing commission" to overhaul the complex hodgepodge of our penal code, applying tough sentences for violent crime while reducing sentences for less serious offenses.

Finally, we can use the savings from reducing the number of people in prison and jail to invest in crime prevention, in proven alternatives to incarceration and re-entry services, and for programs that help heal children exposed to violence.

Besides the Legislature and governor, local prosecutors and law enforcement leaders have a critical role to play in turning around our failed approach to public safety. It's said that a good prosecutor wins convictions but that a great prosecutor has convictions. More of my former fellow prosecutors and law enforcement leaders must find the exemplary courage shown by Holder and the few prosecutors and police chiefs who have dared to support reform.

They can implement proven strategies such as expanding the use of probation supervision, drug courts and other treatment-focused strategies for low-level offenders. They can champion measures to reduce racial bias in the system. Perhaps most importantly, they can catch up to the public will on these issues and stop standing in the way of urgently needed policy change.

In poll after poll and with their votes, Californians have shown that we have had it with empty "tough on crime" rhetoric, bloated prisons and jails, and wasted tax dollars. We are demanding smart solutions that reserve our prisons and jails for those who are dangerous, and end the revolving door of recidivism by treating drug addiction and mental illness.

The attorney general is absolutely right – we can no longer afford to use 20th century criminal justice solutions to overcome our 21st century challenges. As a state that prides itself on innovation, it's well past time for California to stop lagging behind on this critical issue and find the courage to lead.

Timothy P. Silard is a former prosecutor and president of the Rosenberg Foundation.

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