Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Who Is a "Violent Offender?" Amending Prop. 57 and Other Populist Adventures

In the last couple of years, several people--John Pfaff, Christopher Seeds, yours truly--have commented on an important feature of criminal justice reform: it consistently makes a distinction between "violent" and "nonviolent" inmates, ignoring the former and offering the latter early releases, parole, and enlightened sentencing changes. In this vein, Prop. 57, which passed by a great majority this November, offered an escape valve from excessive incarceration to people sentenced for nonviolent crimes (approximately 25,000 inmates in state prisons.)

But what constitutes a "violent crime" is under debate, and some CA lawmakers are under the impression that we have excluded some offenses from this category. They propose amending Prop. 57 to include dozens of offenses, which they perceive as "violent."

This is a terrible, wasteful, and pointless proposal, and here's why.

First, a person's offense of arrest (or even offense of conviction) is no proxy as to the risk they might pose to the public. As Susan Turner and Julie Gerlinger found out, there is no significant correlation between the violence involved in an offense and the recidivism of the offender. This distinction we make is largely for optics and public palatability, and it doesn't really address risk.

Second, if anything, the category we need to rethink is that of violent criminals, whose aggressive prosecution is the engine behind mass incarceration according to John Pfaff's Locked In. As long as we continue to retrench our views about violent offender and perceive them as an indistinguishable mass, our correctional crisis will not be resolved.

Third, Prop. 57 does not offer automatic release. It offers the opportunity to appear before a parole board. Presumably the lawmakers proposing the change want us to be safe, right? Well, if the parole board is unconvinced that the person is safe to release, they can simply decline to release them.

Fourth, it's important to understand what "early releases" mean. Over the years, CA sentencing laws have become a patchwork of draconian enhancements and additions. All Prop. 57 does is offer the person an opportunity to show rehabilitation BEFORE all the draconian additions kick in.

Finally, do these legislatures forget the importance of financial accountability? People who spend unconscionably long times in prison become old before their time, and ill, and therefore expensive.

I really hope this horrible idea crawls back to where it came from. In the last couple of months we've come to think of California as an island of reason and progress amidst the national catastrophe. Looks like we have to stand watch at the state capitol as well.

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