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Learning from lifers: sentencing reforms based on empirical evidence

A January 2013 CDCR study finds that “lifers recidivate at markedly lower rates than those who serve determinate sentences.” While this is not necessarily surprising to criminal justice stakeholders, it does raise a data-driven reason for pursuing sentencing reform.

From 1917 to 1976, California employed an indeterminate sentencing scheme whereby convicted individuals received life sentences subject to evidence of their rehabilitation (“lifers”). In July 1976, California passes the Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL), which eliminated rehabilitation as a goal of sentencing in favor of a scheme that emphasized specified periods of incarceration.

Both sentencing schemes received significant criticism due to inherent flaws. Indeterminate sentencing resulted in longer and longer periods of incarceration as politically motivated officials continually denied parole regardless of evidence that they were no longer a threat to society. In fact, historically state Governors denied the release of 90% of lifers who have been found suitable for parole by a panel of law enforcement experts. These decisions are often steeped in emotionally charged public sentiment and result in racial and economic disparities.

Determinate sentencing on the other hand, includes no rehabilitation requirement and releases inmates regardless of their safety risk. This reduces any impetus for the prison system to provide programming or for inmates to participate in any programming offered. The model simply requires individuals to wait our their sentence in prison, and has resulted in high recidivism rates (52% returning to prison for new convictions within 3 years, compared to 5% for lifers).

In addition, California has passed several sentencing enhancements that compound these problems. For example, the state’s three-strikes law has received constant criticism for prompting the unnecessary incarceration of hundreds of low-level offenders and exacerbating prison overcrowding. Proposition 36 (2012) amended three-strikes to reduce this unintended consequence, mandating that the third strike be for a violent or serious felony. However, many second strikers continue to serve longer sentences for low-level crimes and as my CJCJ colleague Lizzie Buchen points out, longer sentences do not necessarily promote public safety. Again, these punitive sentencing enhancements are often driven by public fear sparked by one-time events, rather than empirical study.

In 2013, the state prison system is overcrowded and under federal court order to reduce its population and provide constitutionally mandated conditions of care. Research indicates that rehabilitation is best achieved through locally based programming that addresses underlying social and environmental criminogenic risk factors. Our continued criminalization of people based on a fear of what they might do perpetuates an unjust cycle of over incarceration. Californiamust engage in rational sentencing reforms that are attached to measureable public safety outcomes.

Keywords: Proposition 36, public safety, rehabilitation, Selena Teji

Posted in Blog, Sentencing

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