One thing that became crystal clear on the Thursday opening panel was the lack of coordination between the different steps of the correctional process, starting with sentencing; but the deep problems, and the immense challenges in fixing them, were fully introduced only on Friday morning on the sentencing panel.
The panel was opened by Judge Tricia Bigelow, Associate Justice at the 2nd District Court of Appeal, who teaches sentencing to judges, and who used the words "labyrinth" and "byzantine" when describing the CA sentencing scheme (citing a colleague who compared our sentencing laws to bureaucratic memoranda and toy assembly instructions!). Since 1977, Judge Bigelow explained, the basic structure for single-count felony sentencing consists of choosing a "base term", and then adding conduct and status enhancements. The penal code provides "triads" for each particular crime (for example: 2, 3, or 5 years); after Cunningham v. CA, a temporary legislative fix allows the judges to select one term out of the triad based on a set of factors from a non-exclusive list. After adding enhancements - additional prison time due to the nature of the crime (injury, gun, excessive taking in a theft) or to the circumstances of the criminal (previous convictions) - the judge can review a variety of statutory reasons for mitigation or aggravation. This is a fact-specifc process, which is difficult to systematize. The judge must also state reasons for selecting the base term out of the triad.
The picture becomes murkier, though, because CA law is a patchwork of sentencing initiatives that create special sentencing schemes for special cases. Not only do we have a "ghetto" of indeterminate sentencing for lifers, but we also have three strike laws, which, incidentally, create changes in sentencing for two-strikers as well (double the punishment); special sentencing schemes for sex offenders, gun offenders, gang offenders, and others. Judge Bigelow amused/horrified/bewildered us with some of the example cases she gives to judges when she teaches sentencing; it is truly a difficult maze and, as she reports, none of them got one of the examples right. She mentioned the need for a unified system that produces predictable results.
How must we proceed in producing a unified system? Kara Dansky, Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, strongly advocated for a sentencing commission. She started by highlighting two themes in CA sentencing: the unique rigidity and complexity of our sentencing system, and the shift in discretion from the hands of judges and correctional officials to legislators and prosecutors. What we have now is remarkably different from what the original enactors of the Determinate Sentencing Scheme had in mind in 1976; the triads, which were supposed to simplify matters and provide certainty, ended up being part of a patchwork, and are surrounded by hundreds of enhancements. Every single time a sentencing commission has been proposed - and there have been 11 bills so far - it has died, been vetoed, or stalled. There is now a new bill for a sentencing commission before the Assembly, based on Tentative Draft #1 (which, despite its tentative name, is the last word from the people who brought you the Model Penal Code).
A sentencing commission would have several purposes. It would be expected to develop sentencing guidelines (with an eye toward creating uniformity while still allowing judges room to individualize the sentence); collaborate with judges (who should be more involved than they are now); provide information and generate knowledge from the entire system (there is no single nonpartisan forum for policy, nor is there any communication between the different silos maintaining datasets on CA sentences); explain the logic behind sentencing policy (a duty from which our lawmakers are exempt); and ensure that all of this happens on a permanent and ongoing basis.
Dansky also tackled several of the arguments against sentencing commissions, arguing that they were based on misconceptions of the institution and the logic behind it. Two worth mentioning were the concern that commissions would be undemocratic, when, in fact, they would be a transparent governmental agency, and the concern that voter initiatives would render them useless, which may be the case for some, but not all, sentencing situations.
It was a pleasant surprise to find out that not only judges and policymakers had concerns with sentencing; Michael Jimenez, President of CCPOA, showed us that correctional officers and guards have vested interest in what happens to their inmates before they arrive in prison. In fact, Jimenez argued, the sentencing scheme is so bad that he could not imagine anything worse. The CCPOA has been pushing for a sentencing commission as well, but very disheartened with the political process around it. It all revolves, said Jimenez, around money; there is no political fix for the sentencing problem as long as our policy calculations are influenced by short term, year-to-year tactics.
The politics of sentencing reform were furtherly driven home by State Senator Mark Leno, who shared with us the sobering realities of sentencing politics. California, said Leno, now spends 11 percent of its budget on corrections - that is, more than it spends on higher education, and obtains abysmal results. We have twice the national recidivism rate and half the national parole completion rate. 70% of the inmates come out of prison functionally illiterate; 70% face serious alcohol and drug problems; 60% will be homeless and unemployable. We are the only state that has both determinate sentencing and parole – three years of it, irrespective of the crime - and no intermediate sanctions. As prison population ages, the costs per prisoner rise; they double for inmates over 50, and triple for inmates over 60.
Leno told us of several attempts to amend CA laws and how they were fought - unfairly and inaccurately - by aggressive lobbyists using fear tactics. An attempt to amend the three strikes law a few years ago, to require that the third strike be a violent offense, seemed to make sense to voters - until the governor had a wealthy sponsor flood the media with statements on the potential to release dangerous rapists and murderers, information left out of the brochure because of its inaccurate, misleading nature. Another attempt to reform the system by allowing people to exit parole after 12 months - which would have saved 70 million dollars, which would then be directed into rehabilitation programs in prison - was killed by a floor alert saying that the bill would release thousands of rapists and murderers. Immediately after the bill was killed, Leno got the following message from the lobbyists: “we apologize for the inaccuracies in our floor alert”.
Leno highlighted that the fear tactics were not a republican problem. Neither republican nor democrat lawmakers want to appear soft on crime at any cost. Under the circumstances, and given the fear of elected officials, a sentencing commission is necessary.