Opinion

Sentencing reform and redemption, California style

An early prison cell, an inmate's home for years. (Photo: Straight 8 Photography)

Jerry Brown’s push for sentencing reform is the latest great example of Brown doing what most experts and practitioners know to be the right thing—and the willingness of an aging and experienced governor to learn from and correct his mistakes.

In early 2003, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown called me at the Little Hoover Commission and told me he would be at our public hearing on parole reform in the state capitol on February 23.  He didn’t ask for an invitation; he asked what time it would start and what room we would be in.

The recommendations included a series of incentives to encourage inmates to prepare themselves for reintegration into their communities

The Commission staff had been talking to Oakland officials about the impact of hundreds of parolees returning from prison to Oakland each year with less inclination or ability to stay out of trouble than when they were convicted, usually for drug or property crimes.  Oakland’s community leaders felt their job was tough enough without the state driving up vans full of inmates, unlocking their handcuffs and handing them $200.

Mayor Brown told the Commission he had erred when as Governor he signed a “sentencing reform” law that moved the state from “indeterminate sentencing” – offenders were given a range of years and could be paroled when deemed ready for release – to time-certain “determinant” sentencing.

The reform was intended in part to respond to the egregious racial bias in parole decisions. But it set the stage for two decades of fear-based increases in the length of prison sentences, as well as Brown’s primary concern:  It eliminated the incentives for inmates to get an education, drug treatment, religion, whatever would increase their chances of staying clean and sober, employed and out of trouble on the outside.

The Commission in November 2003 issued another in a series of bipartisan, comprehensive policy prescriptions for reforming what had become the most expensive, least effective correctional system in the nation.  The recommendations included a series of incentives to encourage inmates to prepare themselves for reintegration into their communities. Brown endorsed the recommendations in a press conference at the Oakland Airport.

Since then a number of significant changes have occurred – driven by court decisions, fiscal pressures and political leadership that have started to dismantle what had become known as the prison industrial complex.

Some of the most significant changes – and also the most controversial and challenging ones – have increased the responsibilities of county governments to manage offenders in jail and on supervised released.

California Forward – a bipartisan civic organization inspired in part to implement the kinds of smart government solutions advocated by the Little Hoover Commission – went to work with county officials in 2011 to help them implement these reforms.

We knew that the policy changes only created an opportunity. The most important benefits – fewer crimes and wasted lives, better results from scarce public resources – could only be achieved from effective implementation.

We have affirmed that most county leaders want to “do the right thing” – put in place more cost-effective solutions than those that produced a financially unsustainable and morally indefensible prison system.

But doing the right thing is much, much harder than it sounds. These dedicated professionals need and want to understand the research-based literature of what works. They need to work together across adversarial “silos” – the sheriff and the public defender, the district attorney and the mental health director.

They need to build data systems and learn how to analyze where they are wasting money, and where resources can be directed to promising programs.  They need to change how they make policies, design and manage programs.  They need to change from a culture of “tail them and nail them” to helping community members break the costly and futile cycle between jail cells and the streets.

Governor Brown has been reluctant to define how counties build a better model – and that is the right posture.

But the state does have a new and important role in providing support and incentives for counties to build the capacities and partnerships that can deliver integrated and effective services, which must accompany sentencing reforms to effectively deal with criminal behavior and protect public safety.

CA Fwd has stepped into this role with generous support from our foundation backers. Working with county officials, we have demonstrated the potential and imperative of “system change” at the community level.  Now it is time for public agencies – state and local – to invest public money in building this capacity.

The Governor said in his State of the State address that some of California’s renaissance is due to trends beyond our borders.  But in important ways, we are leaning from mistakes – Prop 2 and the budget reserve is a meaningful response to boom-and-bust budgets.  California enacted long contemplated reforms with the new school funding formula that gave more discretion to local school officials and more resources to schools in struggling neighborhoods.

In correcting a mistake with sentencing reform, the Governor is proposing to widen the door even further to create cost-effective, smart and humane criminal justice strategies within California’s communities.  Let’s not blow it.

Ed’s Note: Jim Mayer is president and CEO of California Forward, a nonprofit political reform group. He served as executive director of the Little Hoover Commission from 1999 to 2005.


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