Forty years after signing strict, fixed-term sentencing standards into law – and more than a decade after panning them as an “abysmal failure” – Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday proposed a ballot measure to make it easier for nonviolent offenders to gain parole.
In a rebuke of criminal enhancements that can dramatically extend prison terms, the measure would let felons convicted of nonviolent offenses seek parole after serving only their base sentences. It would also restructure what Brown called a “crazy quilt” of credits for good behavior, benefiting prisoners who demonstrate evidence of rehabilitation.
The initiative language would also undo provisions of Proposition 21, the measure approved by voters in 2000 that allows prosecutors rather than judges to decide when teenagers are tried as adults. Brown will need valid signatures from 585,407 registered voters to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Brown, announcing the measure in a conference call with reporters, said the “determinate sentencing” law he signed when he was governor before “had unintended consequences.”
“Unintended consequences” is right. The original pioneering California move in the late 1970s to determinate sentencing was a bipartisan collaboration between conservatives, who were concerned that light sentences amounted to coddling offenders, and progressives, who were concerned about the arbitrariness of parole powers and about its disparate impact on poor people and minorities. The last forty years in California, if seven years’ worth of posts on this blog haven’t made it clear, have been a very, very bad idea.
“And one of the key unintended consequences was the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves,” he said, “because they had a certain date and there was nothing in their control that would give them a reward for turning their lives around.”
Though his measure would not change sentencing standards, Brown said “it does recognize the virtue of having a certain measure of indeterminacy in the prison system.”
“The driver of individual incentive, recognizing that there are credits to be earned and there’s parole to be attained, is quite a driver,” he said.
The announcement of the initiative was the first specific sign of how Brown plans to involve himself in the November ballot measure campaigns. The fourth-term governor holds a campaign war chest of about $24 million.
Asked if he would finance the initiative, Brown said he will do “whatever it takes to get this done.”
Brown will enjoy a relatively favorable electorate, with high turnout for a presidential election typically benefiting Democratic politicians and their causes.
California voters in recent years have demonstrated a willingness to move away from tough-on-crime policies. In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for some drug and property crimes. Two years earlier, voters passed Proposition 36, revising “three strikes” to require that the third strike be a violent or serious felony.
The initiative is likely to face opposition from some conservatives. State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said in a prepared statement that “weakening the criminal justice system will only increase the victimization of California citizens.”
Brown said the ballot measure’s proposal followed “intense conversation” with law enforcement groups, representatives of which joined him on his conference call.
Brown said he considered including violent offenders in the initiative but that it “met with, I would say, near-universal disinterest” from law enforcement.
“It became a nonstarter,” he said.
Brown, who helped create the state’s “determinate sentencing” system when he was governor before, has said for years that it should be revisited. In a speech to judges in Sacramento in November, Brown said he didn’t foresee the dramatic impact determinate sentencing would have on the growth of California’s prison population. The policy scaled back judicial discretion in prison sentences.
I haven’t seen the full text yet [UPDATE: I just read it–here it is–and am posting a follow-up], and will of course comment in depth when I do, but I think some preliminary remarks are in order:
- In many ways, the last forty years made us smarter than we were in 1977. We know that Martinson’s somber prediction that “nothing works” in rehabilitation was not true, and that doing rehabilitation properly can reduce recidivism. And we also know that determinate sentencing, and that treating kids as adults, achieves little in the way of equality and streamlining and plenty in the way of packing prisons.
- Another way in which we’re smarter now is that we understand that discretion doesn’t go away–it merely moves around. What we did in 1977 was shift it from the hands of judges and parole boars to the hands of prosecutors and legislatures–to the point that some commentators, like John Pfaff and the always fabulous Grits for Breakfast, attribute mass incarceration primarily to prosecutorial charging decisions gone amok.
- But let’s not throw the baby with the bathwater. One of the reasons California moved away from determinate sentencing in the first place was concern about unfettered discretion by judges and parole boards. Even now, when parole hearings are relegated to lifers, the board enjoys a lot of discretion and very little transparency. My research for my book in progress about the parole hearings of the Manson family members, Yesterday’s Monsters, shows the very limited responsiveness of the parole board to the California Supreme Court’s supervision, and if we want to get the good stuff (incentives to rehabilitate, shorter sentences) without the bad stuff (discrimination and arbitrariness) we need to design parole in a smarter way. With great power, Spiderman’s uncle reminds us, comes great responsibility, and there are no guarantees that parole boards are much better than prosecutors in the discretion department.
- Note the humonetarianism theme throughout the proposal. Just like in the initiative on juvenile justice, the language relies heavily on the issue of cost.
- So, what happens to the California Penal Code if this passes? Do we rewrite felony sentencing to eliminate the “triad” and affix broad ranges to allow judges discretion? This is going to be a massive redrafting job, but quite an interesting one, and how successful it is depends on how controlled it might be by partisan politics.
- Finally, the article talks about the possible broad support by California voters–the same ones that voted, by large majority, to make lots of punitive changes that we regret to this day. And it may well be that, beyond cost, one of the major reasons that the Republican lawmaker’s it’s-a-scary-world retort falls flat is that crime rates are low. Very low compared to what our predecessors in 1977 were facing. It may be the case that it’s time to put aside the hubris and conclude that crime rates, like the weather, happen for a variety of causes, of which sentencing reform is only one, and that our decisionmaking process should not sway to and fro every time the pendulum swings.