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Little Hoover Commission discusses need for sentencing reform

Today, the Little Hoover Commission (LHC) hosted a public hearing on bail and sentencing reform in the State Capitol.  LHC is an independent state oversight agency created in 1962 to investigate state government operations and promote efficiency, economy and improved service.

As part of an ongoing assessment of public safety in California following AB 109 criminal justice realignment in October 2011, the LHC heard testimony regarding the monetary bail system, alternatives to bail, jail population management and reduction strategies, and the innovative new San Francisco Sentencing Commission.

While AB 109 has been successful at reducing the state prison population, there is concern that some counties are relying heavily on unnecessary local incarceration as a way to manage their newly local offender population.  Not only does this approach recapitulate the failed policies that led to the prison crisis in the first place, but it creates a disparate statewide application of sentencing policies that defy the basic premise of California's sentencing laws: the same time for the same crime.

Instead, California's sentencing practices are largely driven by location rather than the severity of the crime committed.  When AB 109 was implemented many of the counties that were previously dependent on the state prison system faced challenges in developing a new approach to serving their low-level offenders. 

The testimony heard today discussed some of these challenges.  Currently many jails in California are operating under population caps due to problems with overcrowding that existed before realignment.  Approximately 71% of the county jail population in California is pretrial, and thus presumed innocent, many of whom remain detained simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.

Additionally, there are pretrial detainees that are held in jail despite being eligible for and capable of meeting bail amounts because they are on a federal immigration hold or because they have violated a condition of their probation.

Housing low-risk pretrial defendants in county jail facilities can have significant negative collateral consequences, including harmful effects on their children, families, and communities.  Defendants can lose their employment, housing, and children while detained pending resolution of their cases, which can include acquittal.  Additionally, as Santa Cruz County Probation Chief Scott MacDonald noted in his testimony today, housing low-risk offenders with high-risk offenders can be criminogenic.

Fortunately, realignment presents opportunities as well as challenges.  Chief MacDonald also highlighted several model strategies that his department has implemented locally to create systems change that prepared them for the new responsibilities under realignment.  San Francisco County is following suit by investing in creative collaborations, such as the local Sentencing Commission, to identify areas for sentencing and policy reform that will change the way the county justice system operates.


The hearing concluded with a discussion of the need for informed, data-driven dialogue regarding sentencing practices.  CJCJ's Kate McCracken presented on the current sentencing disparities in California, describing a system of justice by geography.  These disparities occur through the various points of discretionary decision-making during the local justice process.  More research is needed at these key junctures in the system to ascertain exactly what sentencing reform is needed in order to ensure a fair and equitable statewide justice system.

The hearing will available on the California Channel website in archived form within a week after the hearing date.

Keywords: bail industry, best practices, pretrial, Selena Teji, state policy

Posted in Blog, Justice by Geography, Sentencing

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