Soapbox

Why Marc Klaas is wrong about Proposition 57

Gov. Jerry Brown, who dramatically altered California’s criminal sentencing system when he was first governor a generation ago, is asking voters to change it back with Proposition 57.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who dramatically altered California’s criminal sentencing system when he was first governor a generation ago, is asking voters to change it back with Proposition 57. Associated Press file

Proposition 57 would not release criminals convicted of crimes such as kidnapping, rape and murder, as argued by victims’ rights advocate Marc Klaas (“Prop. 57 would release violent criminals and undermine the rights of victims,” Viewpoints, Oct. 25).

It would simply allow parole consideration for nonviolent offenders who have already served their base sentences, giving them an incentive to earn earlier release. Voters should approve Proposition 57 to make long overdue refinements to felony sentencing.

In 1974, Jerry Brown inherited a gubernatorial-controlled prison system. Ronald Reagan, his predecessor, reduced the prison population by more than 25 percent virtually overnight by telling the parole board to relax release criteria. Some inmates were released before serving minimum sentences.

To Brown’s credit, he stopped this sleight of hand. In 1976, he signed the determinate sentencing law, supported by law enforcement and praised by prison reformers. These fixed sentences caused outrage when heinous crimes were considered too lightly punished. The Legislature responded by lengthening sentences and building more prisons. Voters also adopted longer sentences, most notably the prison industry-funded “three-strikes” initiative, which even resulted in a life sentence for shoplifting a package of cheese.

The number of prisoners serving three-strike sentences rivals the total number of prisoners incarcerated in 1976. Before determinate sentencing, California had nine prisons holding about 30,000 prisoners. Those figures eventually increased to 33 prisons with a population at times exceeding 160,000.

The cost of prisons means that the state now spends 8.1 percent of its budget for prisons, more than the 5.3 percent for the UC and CSU systems combined. Our budget-constrained era presents a choice: Do we want the greatest public universities or the biggest and costliest prison system?

Voters, even in places such as Texas and Georgia, are concluding there are too many prisons, which are neither cheap nor economic engines like universities. It’s time to choose education over prisons.

Michael B. Salerno, who was a principal consultant on sentencing in 1976, is a law professor at UC Hastings. He can be contacted at salernom@uchastings.edu.

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