Broken, ineffective, and unsustainable. These are all words used by Attorney General Eric Holder to describe our criminal justice system. It is an accurate description for a system that over incarcerates and has high rates of disproportionate minority contact. Holder went further to state,
“It’s time – in fact, it’s well past time – to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach.”
Here in California, how do we begin to address this disparate system? Who should be charged with this daunting task? Is it time for California to reconsider the creation of a statewide Sentencing Commission?
The national criminal justice problems Holder references pervade California’s 58 county systems. California is a system of justice by geography whereby one’s county of residence plays a large part in how justice is applied. For example, statewide 4 percent of felony drug arrests result in commitment to state prison. The figure ranges from 17 percent in Kings County to half of a percent in Contra Costa County. It is time for California’s justice system to progress into a 21st century approach that is fair, equitable, and efficient.
The first step will be to address California’s quagmire of sentencing laws. During the past 30 years, over 1,000 sentencing enhancement bills passed in the legislature. The complexity of these bills, as well as their punitive nature, has increased the number of individuals committed to state prison with a trend for longer sentences. This combination has further exacerbated prison and jail overcrowding in the face of research that shows incarceration is often counterproductive and unnecessary. There is an urgent need for sentencing reform, but the road to get there may be long and arduous. A sentencing commission consisting of experts in the field could shift California in the right direction.
In fact, Tim Silard, President of the Rosenberg Foundation, recently stated a sentencing commission would, “overhaul the complex hodgepodge of our penal code, applying tough sentences for violent crime while reducing sentences for less serious offenses.” He has not been the first to point this out and will not be the last. In fact, since 1976 a state sentencing commission has been recommended at least nine times. This opposition has stemmed in general from disagreement by various law enforcement associations and advocates on the intention and design of the Commission. California could seek peer support from other state leaders that have successful created Commissions.
A sentencing commission would allow the state to revisit the purpose of sentencing in this post-Realignment era where we remain in a state of prison overcrowding. A data-driven approach would allow a commission to examine the current effects of sentencing laws and help predict the effects of proposed legislation. With this sort of analytical method, the Commission could help address “unwarranted disparities” in sentencing that Holder suggests is necessary.
The current sentencing crisis confronting state and county justice systems was avoidable. It is the product of what is now recognized as poorly conceived correctional policy and decision making primarily at the state level. California must learn from its history, and develop an informed approach to sentencing that unravels the ad hoc sentencing enhancement bills of the last 30 years.
A statewide Sentencing Commission can provide that informed and structured decision-making approach, which already exists in at least twenty other states. It is time for California to create a Commission that can cultivate a fair and equitable sentencing regime for justice-involved individuals no matter which county they live in.
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
Friday, 30 August 2013