EDITORIAL: California prisons still need reform, improvement

Gov. Jerry Brown may declare the state’s prison crisis over, but legislators still have plenty to do to ensure a functional corrections system. 

Declaring victory is not the same as actually achieving it. The governor might say the state’s prison crisis is over, but the real test will be whether the court agrees. Even then, legislators need to tackle the state’s incoherent sentencing scheme and ensure that the complex corrections realignment plan succeeds.

Gov. Jerry Brown last week said the state’s prison crisis was over and demanded that the federal court return control of California prisons to the state. The administration also filed legal papers seeking to end court intervention in the state’s corrections system.

California has struggled for years to deal with prison ills. A federal judge seized control of inmate health care in 2005, after the state promised, but failed, to improve a system rife with neglect and substandard care. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared an emergency in 2006 because the state’s 33 prisons were crowded to nearly twice their intended capacity. A panel of three federal judges in 2009 ordered the state to reduce the prison population, then at about 148,000, to 110,000.

Whether federal judges will lift a population cap the state has yet to meet — state prisons now contain about 119,000 inmates — is a big question. The state’s long record of irresponsibility on prison issues offers little reason for judges to trust California’s promises of reform. And the changes the state has made happened mainly because of court intervention.

But despite clear progress in fixing parole, boosting inmate health care and easing crowded conditions, legislators still have much to do to ensure a functional corrections system. Legislators should, for example, revise criminal sentencing laws that are chaotic and arbitrary. Sentences for similar crimes can vary wildly for no discernible reason. Politicians and voters have created longer criminal sentences in haphazard fashion, with no thought to any coherent approach to punishment or any consideration of the state’s prison capacity.

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