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For real prison reform, look beyond the Non-Non-Nons

Last week, while defiantly declaring the end of California's prison crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown insisted further reductions in prison overcrowding "cannot be achieved without the early release of inmates serving time for serious or violent felonies," a move that would "jeopardize public safety." In other words, now that Realignment is sending low-level offenders to local custody instead of state prison, those who remain in prison need to stay there to protect the public.

This unfounded assumption is used to justify a large and growing mass of the state's unnecessary incarceration. Most serious and violent offenders do need to serve some time behind bars to protect the public, but we keep them there for far too long. And the terms are only getting longer. If California wants a sustainable solution to its prison crisis, it needs to rethink its increasingly harsh sentencing policies across the gamut of offenses -- not just the low-level targets of Realignment and Prop 36.

A recent study found that California offenders who committed violent crimes can now expect to serve 7 years in prison -- in 1990, they would have served less than 3. Looking at people who committed murder, those who were released in 2009 served an average of 16 years; now, they can expect to serve more than 50 years. This lengthening of sentences for violent crimes is a major reason California's prisons are overflowing and will continue to do so. In 2009, nearly 100,000 of the state's prison inmates were doing time for violent crimes, a number that will only grow as the exit door continues to recede.

A major driver of these long sentences is sentencing enhancements -- additional prison time for circumstances such as using a gun, gang involvement, and repeat offending, aimed at targeting people thought to present a high risk to society. Although Three Strikes has received the most notoriety, an equally draconian California sentencing enhancement is 10-20-Life -- "Use a Gun and You're Done."

Under 10-20-Life, anyone older than 13 who uses a gun while committing a serious felony (including robbery, homicide, kidnapping, and many sex crimes) will serve harsh sentences on top of the "base" sentence for the crime: 10 extra years for brandishing a gun, 20 for firing the gun, and 25-to-Life if firing the gun results in serious injury or death. These enhancements are often longer than the time served for the crime itself.

For example, someone who commits or attempts second-degree robbery would serve, at most, five years if no gun was present. If the offender fires a gun during the robbery, he will serve 25 years, an enhancement four times longer than the base sentence. A person convicted of first-degree murder with a gun will be sentenced to at least 50 years-to-life, twice the sentence of one who killed using another method, like strangulation, poison or an ax. The enhancements are mandatory and cannot be struck by a judge; the only possible way to avoid them is to waive your right to a trial and plea bargain.

The long and mandatory prison sentences that result from 10-20-Life and Three Strikes demonstrate the state's overreliance on incarceration as crime control. The notion is that people who have committed serious crimes need to be confined -- and the longer they stay there, the better. But as I will discuss in my next post on Tuesday, this premise is not supported by evidence, and comes at a high cost to California citizens.

~ Lizzie Buchen
CJCJ Communications and Policy

Keywords: adult corrections, Proposition 36, three strikes

Posted in Blog, Sentencing

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