Gov. Jerry Brown shortened prison sentences for 131 people on Christmas Eve in an admirable display of mercy. But we cannot depend on a governor’s mercy to correct the systemic failures of the criminal justice system.
This week’s commutations bring Brown’s total for his last two terms to 283 shortened sentences — many more than recent predecessors. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued just ten commutations. Gray Davis granted none.
The stories are inspirational. David Negrete, who was sentenced to 59 years to life for attempted murder in a gang-related shooting at age 16, has dedicated himself to rehabilitation and mentoring juvenile offenders. Brown shortened the sentence for Negrete, now 26, to 17 years to life.
Brown shortened life-without-parole sentences of 30 people in women’s prisons this year, acknowledging their dedication to rehabilitation and their community contributions. They are not a threat to public safety, and their original sentences to die in prison no longer align with who they are. A governor’s commutations are weighty and must be conducted with great thought. Yet they are no substitute for a system of just and proportional punishment that takes rehabilitation into account and provides opportunities for mercy.
Our country’s criminal justice systems, subject to human fallibility, fail to ensure justice. Science on brain development and mental capacity was discounted until 2002, when the Supreme Court held the death penalty is unconstitutional for those with intellectual disabilities. Not until 2005 did the court end the death sentence for minors.
Suggestions that reform has gone too far and too fast are not borne out by the numbers. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has reported the state’s prisons are at 135 percent of capacity. They are filled with people serving excessive sentences who often remain incarcerated beyond their parole dates.
Even after all the reforms of the past few years, California’s parole denial rate stands at 83 percent — denials that often occur after people have served decades in prison. Many of these people deserve a second chance now, as do many of the 5,000 Californians serving sentences of life without parole.
California has passed legislation giving a second chance to thousands of incarcerated people who were minors or young adults when they committed crimes. They now have the opportunity to go before a parole board after serving 15, 20 or 25 years. The relief may seem generous when compared with their original prison terms, but it still leaves them serving unnecessarily long sentences.
People who have been victims of crime or lost loved ones to violence should play a larger role in the process. A system of justice and mercy would give survivors of crime more opportunities to receive the central components of accountability: acknowledgment, remorse and reparations.
In the New Year, we call on Gov-elect Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to commit to public safety by returning rehabilitated individuals to their families and communities. Supporting youth, families and communities with education, health care, and housing instead of spending more money on prisons will help achieve what many victims want: a world where no family loses a loved one to violence.