Lenore Anderson San Jose Mercury News op-ed

San Jose Mercury News, May 28, 2012

Lenore Anderson: Time for serious reform of California's criminal justice system

In many ways, California leads the nation in innovation, from new technology to environmental protection to entertainment. We take pride in being trendsetters, paving new pathways to a brighter future.

But when it comes to one of our most cherished values – public safety – California's approach has been anything but innovative. While other states have begun to tackle unchecked prison spending, California has lagged behind.

A year ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in. In Brown v. Plata, the court ruled that California's behemoth prison system was a disaster.

The justices said the deplorable overcrowded conditions violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment and that the state had to reduce the population by more than 30,000 within two years.

Not only has this landmark ruling finally brought about long-overdue prison reforms, but it also has the potential to finally break California's budget-busting trade-off between a broken prison system and keeping books in our classrooms, our hospitals and clinics open and, well, just about everything that gives the next generation a chance.

Here's how we got to this breaking point.

For decades, a blanket "lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" mindset packed our 33 state prisons to the brim, growing corrections spending by nearly 1,500 percent from the early 1980s to today.

Meanwhile, nearly three out of every four people released from prison end up right back there. The one-size-fits-all hammer has not worked to rehabilitate people or stop the cycle of crime.

Other states facing similar crises began implementing common-sense reforms – such as diverting people convicted of low-level offenses from prisons – that cost less and work better to stop people from getting in trouble again.

New York reduced its prison population by nearly 20 percent and, at the same time, reduced violent and property-related crime by as much as a third.

Now Gov. Jerry Brown and Corrections Department Secretary Matthew Cate are taking meaningful steps to put California on a new path.

New laws passed over the past year are addressing overcrowding. People convicted of nonviolent, nonserious and nonsex offenses will be placed in county jails or on probation instead of state prisons.

We now stand at a crossroads between continuing to move forward or staying trapped in the past. Every Californian has a stake in the choice. Our state's $16 billion budget deficit means moving from packed state prisons to packed county jails won't be enough. We must implement new cost-effective approaches to protect public safety and our future at the same time.

California needs to overhaul sentencing. Too many people who pose no risk to public safety still languish in lockup for far too long.

We need to reform the pretrial system. More than two-thirds of people in jails are unsentenced, many too poor for bail.

And we need to stop punishing people twice – once when they do the time and again when they are barred from necessities such as housing and employment that help ensure a productive life.

Important reforms are already on the table. Sen. Mark Leno's Senate Bill 1506 would make drug possession a misdemeanor, saving the state $65 million a year, and Sen. Loni Hancock's Senate Bill 1180 would reduce the number of unsentenced people in jail through pretrial programs, saving millions in jail costs.

Last year's Supreme Court decision serves as a wake-up call for more than just the people running our prisons. Law enforcement, nurses, teachers, faith leaders, business owners and everyone concerned about California's fiscal crises can join together to abandon obsolete corrections policies and invest in our future.

Lenore Anderson, an attorney who worked in the San Francisco district attorney's office, is the director of a new multiyear criminal justice reform campaign to reduce California's over-reliance on incarceration.

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