Few accused California Govs. Ronald Reagan or George Deukmejian of being “soft on crime.” But in today’s political climate, who knows? During Reagan’s tenure, the number of prisoners per 100,000 Californians was 121; during Deukmejian’s tenure, it was 230.
Last year, it was 436. Not surprisingly, keeping a much greater proportion of the state’s population behind bars has severely strained the state budget. The state faces an increasingly aged prison population, as lawmakers have created longer and longer sentences and reduced the ability of prisoners to shave off time for good behavior.
This state has a prison population problem and is under a federal court order to reduce it. The next governor and attorney general will inherit that task.
But you won’t hear the candidates making proposals for reversing prison population trends. Driven by fear of the “soft on crime” label, caution is the order of the day.
Republican Meg Whitman has said the prison system “is in dire need of expansion.” She would build more prisons, look at privatization and send some prisoners to other states. She opposes an independent sentencing commission to create a framework for the state’s more than 1,000 sentencing laws. She supports the “three strikes” law and “truth-in-sentencing” (or “determinate sentencing”) laws.
Democrat Jerry Brown signed the law in 1976 eliminating indeterminate sentencing but says it has led to more recidivism. He would revise the current “determinate sentencing” law – mandatory minimum sentences, enhanced penalties for certain crimes – to provide incentives for good behavior. He is against turning prisons over to profit-making corporations. He supports the “three strikes” law. As attorney general, Brown has fought efforts by the federal court to reach a negotiated settlement with the state on reducing population in California’s overcrowded prisons.
Attorney general’s race
Cooley and Harris have worked together in the past on reforming the state’s “three strikes” law, but they don’t consider it a priority today because they believe local prosecutors have set appropriate policies for applying the law.
Harris has ideas for dealing with prisoners at the end of their sentences – giving those in the last 12 months of their sentences intensive re-entry programming while they are still behind bars, followed by another 12 months of out-of-custody programming with the same team. The aim is to reduce recidivism.
Neither has shown interest in a sentencing commission.
Californians deserve better.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 accurately diagnosed the problem: “Our prison population now is more than 167,000 people and still growing year after year. If we imprisoned people at 1994 rates, we’d have 145,000 prisoners. That is a doable goal. Our sentencing rules have doubled the number of aging prisoners in just 10 years. We’ve now got more than 16,000 prisoners over the age of 50. We’re going to turn the tide of increased prison population. We’re going to show that California can reduce crime and downsize our prison system.”
That goal proved elusive in the climate of fear-mongering. Which candidate has the courage to take on that task anew after the Nov. 2 election?