Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Gov. Brown must get real on prison crowding

California has come to the end of the line in attempts to delay the inevitable with the state’s overcrowded prisons. The U.S. Supreme Court this week rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison appeal, the second rejection in three months.

That should focus everybody’s minds on the task at hand – getting the state’s prison population from 120,000 inmates to 112,000, and sustaining those levels over time.

The man to take the lead on that task is Brown himself. For that, we’d like to see a return of the crusader of a decade ago. In February 2003, when he was mayor of Oakland, Brown blasted away at the state’s sentencing system.

In candid, refreshing testimony before the Little Hoover Commission, Brown said that the sentencing system that he signed into law in 1976 had turned into an “abysmal failure.” A sentencing system that gives every inmate the same term whether they improve their behavior and life skills or do nothing and cause trouble provides little incentive for individuals to reform themselves.

Brown denounced the state’s prisons as “postgraduate schools of crime” and recidivism: “It’s a treadmill; it’s a merry-go-round; it’s a scandal,” Brown said of the state prison system. Further, he said that changes in sentencing must be accompanied by an expansion of programs to ensure that prison time is “not just idleness” and a chance to “do push-ups.”

The solutions are readily apparent – and have been for three decades. Work by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Population Management, the Corrections Independent Review Panel and the Little Hoover Commission point to the solution that has worked in other states: a permanent and independent sentencing commission made up of appropriate members from the judicial, corrections and criminal justice fields, and the public.

Legislators, too, have introduced bills to establish a California sentencing commission since the 1990s.

Such a commission would serve as a central clearinghouse for all sentencing data, devise sentencing guidelines and regularly assess all proposed sentencing law changes for their potential effect on crime and state resources. As sentencing commissions have done in other states, they would help to depoliticize sentencing – getting the state away from the cycle of “drive-by sentencing” bills, driven by reactions to sensational one-time events.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s definitive denial gives California two major choices: Rethink who goes to prison for how long, with a sentencing commission. Or launch an expensive new prison building boom, like the 21-year, 22-prison building binge that began in 1984.

In an Oct. 12 veto of a drug sentencing bill, Brown promised to “examine in detail” California’s current sentencing structure. Californians should hold Brown to that pledge and press him to look at successful state sentencing commissions across the country, with the aim of establishing one in California. That is the best way that Brown can undo the “abysmal failure” of the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act (Senate Bill 42) that he signed in 1976.

California today has more than 1,000 felony sentencing laws and more than 100 felony sentence enhancements spread across 21 sections in the California Penal Code. We need a new, simpler organizing framework that has a positive impact in reducing crime and reoffense rates.