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Congressional Supporters of Sentencing Reform Need to Look at California

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There has been quite a bit of discussion on this blog about legislation (S2123) before Congress that would reduce federal sentences for so-called non-violent drug offenders, including some with gun allegations, and allow early release for thousands of offenders convicted under previous law.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is supported by several of the same anti-incarceration advocates who supported California's "Public Safety Realignment Act" (adopted in 2011),  "The Three Strikes Reform Act" (Proposition 36 passed in 2012), and "The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act" (Proposition 47 passed in 2014).  Together, those measures reclassified most property and drug crimes as low-level, non-violent offenses, restricted the sentences of criminals convicted of those crimes to county jail, eliminated the third strike 25-to-life sentence for habitual criminals whose third conviction was not a violent felony, and allowed for the early release of thousands of criminals sentenced under previous law. 

S2123, while not as extensive as the California reforms, would do many of the same things.   
In addition to reducing the sentences for most federal drug crimes, the Congressional act would allow life-tenured, unaccountable federal judges to use "safety valves" to lower the sentences for more serious offenders.  It would also allow for the early release of thousands of drug offenders and other federal criminals sentenced under previous law, again relying on federal judges.  

Like the California reforms, advocates for the Congressional measure are promising that the new law will make the criminal justice system more fair, less expensive, and through expanded treatment and rehabilitation programs, crime rates will decline. 

With a five-year head start on the possible federal reforms, it is reasonable to expect that California would be enjoying some of these benefits by now.  Not so much.

A June 2014 investigative report in the Los Angeles Times found that while California had reduced its prison population by roughly 30,000 inmates it was spending nearly $2 billion more on prison costs per year than before Realignment was enacted.  A January 6, 2016 Reuters report came to the same conclusion, the state is spending billions more on corrections but has fewer prison inmates. 

But far worse than the false promise of saving tax dollars was the lie about protecting public safety.  According to FBI Preliminary Uniform Crime Report, which counts crimes in cities with populations of 100,000 or more for the first six months of 2015, violent crime increased by 1.7% nationally while property crime actually declined by 4.2%.  But in California violent crime spiked by 12.9% and property crime increased by 9.2% in the state's largest cities.   In most cities violent crimes like robbery and aggravated assault were up, sometimes way up.  There were 600 more robberies and 1,300 more aggravated assaults in Los Angeles.  There were nearly 400 more robberies in San Francisco, and murders increased 71%.  73% of California's largest cities had increases in violent crime, 71% had increases in property crime, and 89% saw increases in stolen vehicles.  Let us not forget that, just as proposed in the federal reform, California only reduced sentences for so-called non-serious, non-violent offenders. 

In the face of this, advocates of California's sentencing reforms are either not saying anything or claiming it's too soon to declare them a failure.  Governor Brown did not even mention crime in his state of the state address last week. 

Members of Congress who like these results can join Senators Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Charles Schumer and Al Franken to bring ACLU-backed, California-style sentencing reform to your state.      

 

2 Comments

A superb post.

Backers of federal sentencing reform say they want an "evidence-based" system. Fine. California, the nation's largest state by far, provides ample evidence.

As you point out, however, the evidence is all bad. Instead of lower costs and less crime, we get the opposite -- higher costs and more crime.

This is why California, for all its size (and its "progressive" politics), never seems to get mentioned by reform backers. It's always a smaller state, e.g., South Carolina or Georgia. In the numerous sentencing reform debates I've had, I tend to be the only one who mentions California.

And it's not like the Golden State hasn't had time to figure this out and get it right. The Supreme Court's decision in Plata -- the main triggering event -- was decided five years ago.

The problem is not management. The problem is concept. Given high recidivism rates, early release is bound to mean more crime than we would have if inmates had to serve their full, legal sentences. As your post documents, this has indeed been the experience.

When you combine "sentencing reform" with the movement away from broken windows policing in our major urban areas, public safety will inevitably be compromised.

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