The New York Times has this extended article detailing the sorry state of sentencing and corrections in California. The pictures accompanying the story are stark and telling, and the text of the article really only provides the most basic details of California’s woes. Notably missing from the discussion is the possibility that Supreme Court in Cunningham might declare California’s structured sentencing system unconstitutional (lots of background here).
The entire article spotlights the challenging politics of sentencing reform, even when a state’s situation seems desperate. Also, the second part of the article make a nice case for sentencing commissions. Here is a long snippet from today’s must-read:
By nearly every measure, the California prison system is the most troubled in the nation. Overcrowding, inmate violence, recidivism, parole absconders and the prison medical system are among its many festering problems….
“The November election is over, and that is critical in terms of the politics of prison reform,” said the State Senate majority leader, Gloria Romero, Democrat of Los Angeles. “The governor is particularly looking at his legacy, and I do not believe he can have a positive one if he does not solve the prison crisis.”
Overcrowding is so severe that 16,000 inmates are assigned cots in hallways and gyms; last month, the state began asking for volunteers to be moved to prisons out of state. The system’s medical program is in federal receivership and much of the rest of the system is under court monitoring. Cellblocks are teeming with violence. Seven of 10 inmates released from prison return, one of the highest rates in the country….
Like so many things in California, the scope of the prison problem stems largely from its size. The system houses 173,000 inmates — second-place Texas has 152,500 — and has an $8 billion budget. Its population explosion is in large part an outgrowth of a general increase in the state’s population, its unusual sentencing structure and parole system, a legislature historically enamored with increasing penalties, and ballot measures like the three-strikes initiative.
Further, most rehabilitation programs have been eliminated from the system in recent years, which some criminal justice experts believe has increased the rate of recidivism. Some experts also argue that a legislature bound by term limits has created an expertise vacuum on the complex and emotional issue of prison sentencing….
[A] consensus has been building over the last six months, with union officials, the governor, public policy experts and many members of the legislature agreeing that a sentencing commission is in order. Sentencing commissions, made up of a diverse group of experts including former judges and crime victim advocates, essentially treat prison beds as scarce resources that need to be properly allocated.
Some related posts on California’s prison problems:
• California’s state of (prison) emergency
• The challenging politics of reform
• The continuing crowding problems in California
• Great commentary on California’s prison problems
• “Hasta la vista, prison overcrowding!”
• The sorry state of California’s prisons
Douglas A. Berman is the William B. Saxbe Designated Professor of Law at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and was the Editor and Developments Office Chair of the Harvard Law Review. Professor Berman’s principal teaching and research focus is in the area of criminal law and criminal sentencing . He is the sole creator and author of the widely-read and widely-cited weblog, Sentencing Law and Policy where this article first appeared. It is republished with his permission.