The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced that thousands of federal prisoners serving long sentences for drug offenses can apply for presidential clemency – the latest step by the Obama administration to ease the impact of what it sees as outdated laws that locked up too many people for too long for nonviolent offenses.
California should pay attention – and revisit its own laws. The White House’s decision affects people in federal prisons, not those in our state prisons and jails, and California is still under federal court order to reduce crowding in its prisons. Meanwhile, many California county jails are overcrowded, often with people accused or convicted of drug and other nonviolent offenses.
That’s because over the last 20 years, more than 1,000 amendments were made to California’s Penal Code, most lengthening sentences. Some addressed horrific crimes, but many have resulted in sharply longer terms for nonviolent offenses, very often drug offenses.
California is experiencing its lowest crime rates since the 1960s, yet we spend far more now on our prisons and incarcerate far more people per capita than any country in world. Despite this strategy, 6 in 10 state prisoners return within three years of release. Something must change.
In my 33 years in California law enforcement, including deputy police chief in West Sacramento and director of the state’s Adult Parole Division, I fundamentally came to see two types of people we punish for crimes. There’s a small number we’re afraid of – so dangerous that society must be protected from them. But there’s a much larger population of those we are simply mad at.
The problem is that for decades the criminal justice system has treated both groups the same way, mandating long terms for conviction of a specified crime, regardless of the risk the individual actually represents to the community. If we want to reduce recidivism and continue to reduce crime, we have to change our thinking about the root causes of crime and the people who commit them.
We must realize that massive, across-the-board incarceration may simply postpone future crimes if behavior change is not the focus, especially if mental illness or addiction are underlying factors.
Former inmates will tell you that prisons – where the same gangs and crime rings found on the street operate on the inside – serve as schools for criminals. Add this to the stigma of being a convicted felon – making it harder for them to find work or housing – and we create the very problem we are aiming to solve.
The billions of dollars we spend to warehouse nonviolent offenders drains resources from programs that can actually change behavior, such as substance abuse and mental health treatment, crime prevention programs, job training, education and innovative policing initiatives.
Unfortunately, crime and punishment is highly political; anyone who raises these ideas can be labeled as soft on crime. But the real question is whether we are being smart on crime.
Californians don’t think so. In July 2013, Californians for Safety and Justice asked 1,600 voters which problems in our justice system were the most important to address. Tied for first were “too much money spent on prisons” and “incarceration is used for too many nonserious, nonviolent offenses.”
The Justice Department’s move reflects both public opinion and a growing body of research. California should start a rational discussion about what we’re trying to accomplish with our own justice system. I believe that discussion will lead to the need to not only revamp drug laws but also reclassify other nonviolent offenses currently bringing a felony label and prison sentence.
We must protect our communities from the people we’re afraid of, but we can’t continue wasting limited space and resources on people we’re simply mad at.
Thomas G. Hoffman, a former deputy police chief in West Sacramento and former director of the state Division of Adult Parole Operations, is an executive fellow at the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C.