By Lizzie Buchen
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 seven years in prison – in 1990, they would have served less than three. 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.
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