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Photo by Justin Brockie | flickr creative commons

California’s 2014 legislative session has started and policymakers are considering ways to develop comprehensive public safety policy. California must reduce the state prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity, through fiscally sustainable means, by February 28, 2016. Opinions vary on the best course both in the halls of Sacramento and across the state’s 58 counties.

Recently, two highly respected state bodies released reports on how the state can implement sentencing reform and meet the prison population cap. The Little Hoover Commission (LHC) and Legislative Analysts Office (LAO) each offer a unique perspective, one that all Californians should take seriously.

The LHC released their Sensible Sentencing for a Safer California in February 2014. In a letter that accompanied the report, Chairman Jonathan Shapiro notes,

California’s correctional system is a slow-motion disaster… Scientific research in the past 40 years has led to significant progress in many areas in California. When it comes to criminal justice sentencing, however, California has ignored science… Rehabilitative programs and reducing crime are not mutually exclusive.”

The Commission highlights many potential areas for sentencing reform, including for those individuals convicted of a second strike offense. This population incurs a substantial sentencing enhancement and encapsulates 26 percent of the total state prison population, or 34,353 individuals. Moreover, many of these individuals are convicted of property or drug crimes. The LHC recommends the state, remove burglary from the list of serious and violent crimes.” This would facilitate realigning those with a burglary-based prior strike to county management, which would reduce the prison population.

The LHC also notes the importance of data collection around sentencing and model programs. The Commission recommends creating a Criminal Justice Information Center for this purpose. Such a non-partisan center would collect data on a range of policies and practices and make necessary recommendations to policymakers. This would help ensure policy was data-driven, fiscally sound and best serving California’s communities.

The LAO released The 2014 – 15 Budget: Administration’s Response to Prison Overcrowding Order in late February. This analysis understands Governor Brown’s proposed 2014 – 15 budget within the context of the three-judge panel court order. The LAO’s judgment of the Governor’s proposal is mixed. The authors note the Governor’s plan will meet the court order in the short-term through costly proposals, but faces considerable difficulty with long-term compliance. The report highlights CDCR’s projections whereby the prison population will dip below the court-ordered population cap only to go over it in June 2019

The LAO raises a number of questions concerning the Governor’s $80 million Recidivism Reduction Fund, which the state is using to fund treatment and rehabilitative programs. However, the LAO notes that many of these programs lack planning and sustainable funding necessary to be effective. In many cases the LAO recommends rejecting the Governor’s proposal and using government grants instead to support counties that lower new prison admissions.

Finally, the LAO encourages policymakers to adopt long-term public safety policies. For example, California could lower sentencing penalties and enhancements for certain crimes, such as drug possession. The LAO also recommends that Governor Brown increase the number of early-release credits inmates can earn.

Both reports offer policymakers with a comprehensive roadmap to reform California’s criminal justice system. CJCJ believes the state should incorporate these recommendations, thus reducing the overall prison population and improving public safety. Despite not being politically expedient, both organizations urge policymakers to pursue the arduous and long overdue task of untangling California’s sentencing laws. Rather than focus on piecemeal immediate fixes, the reports offer a bold and comprehensive roadmap to sustainable public safety improvements that would benefit California for generations.