California’s Golden Opportunity on Sentencing Reform
California Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a ballot initiative that aims to alleviate the state’s overcrowded prisons. Brown’s proposal will reduce the prison population by hastening prison release programs and increasing parole hearings for nonviolent, low-risk offenders. Though such measures are a step in the right direction, but in order to fundamentally reform the unjust sentencing laws that led to California’s overcrowded prisons, the governor should consider ALEC model policy. The ALEC model Justice Safety Valve Act allows judges to depart from mandatory minimums when sentencing certain nonviolent, low-risk offenders, consequently allowing judges to potentially divert these types of offenders away from prison and into more effective programs.
During his first two terms as governor in the 1970s, Jerry Brown signed into law tough-on-crime sentencing legislation that imposed strict mandatory minimums. These led to a dramatic rise in the state’s prison populations even as crime across the country saw a precipitous decline. As a consequence of the law, in 2011, California’s prisons drew national consternation when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to release 30,000 inmates due to overcrowded conditions.
Even with the inmate release, As a result of that policy, California leads the nation in corrections spending with a total annual budget of $10.1 billion, equating to $64,000 per prisoner. Rising prison costs consume funds away from critical infrastructure improvements and public education programs; however, by diverting nonviolent, low-risk offenders away from prison, California can focus its corrections efforts only toward the state’s most dangerous criminals to maintain public safety and preserve public funds.
Most importantly, however, is the negative impact prison has on California’s most vulnerable people. Over-incarceration remains a factor in high recidivism rates, as 65 percent of prisoners released in California return to prison within three years. Without sentencing reforms to divert nonviolent, low-risk offenders away from prison, the state is only creating a destructive cycle where far too many Californians are imprisoned. To stop this reckless cycle, sentencing reforms that divert nonviolent, low-level offenders away from prison are essential to the state’s long term prospects.
California long led the nation in implementing innovative policies to remedy the most pressing issues facing the country. Now, California once again has a golden opportunity to lead the nation in innovative sentencing reform that restores justice to the criminal justice system by providing judges with discretion to depart from draconian mandatory minimums when sentencing nonviolent, low-risk offenders. By modeling sentencing reform after the Justice Safety Valve Act, California can remedy a four decade long policy, reduce its prison population and save money all while maintaining public safety and restoring justice to the lives of tens of thousands of Californians.