A risky shift in criminal justice

A risky shift in criminal justice

Dan Morain, Senior editor | Sacramento Bee | January 8th, 2012

Not that many years ago, California legislators worked themselves into a law-and-order frenzy, and with voters’ help, infused the justice system with steroids by approving the nation’s toughest  “three-strikes” sentencing measure.

How the pendulum has swung.

After unrelenting prison growth dating back decades, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a budget last week that would slash $1.1 billion from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, paring its annual budget to $8.7 billion.

Brown is calling on the Legislature to reduce the 66,000-position corrections department by 3,782 spots in the coming year and contemplates reducing the number of jobs by 10,200 over the next five years.

The inmate population never reached the 230,000 projections made in 1994 when California adopted the three-strikes law. But the number of inmates did top 174,000 in 2006. Now, the population sits at 132,000, and will to 112,000 if all goes as planned in the next five years.

“I cannot think of a word that would overstate it,” said Stanford professor Joan Petersilia, a criminal justice expert who has long studied California’s prison system. “We have never seen anything like this in California.”

Brown’s policy is driven by last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the state cut its prison population and by California’s perennially tight budget. Those realities aside, his action is not without risks. At any point, a Willie Horton, who would otherwise be in prison but for the shift, could commit a terrible crime that would enrage the public.

But the politics seem to be turning. Time was the California Correctional Peace Officers Association would have used its clout to block the change. Much of the workforce cut will come at the 32,000-member union’s expense.

“We understand that California has to reduce the cost of the correctional system,” JeVaughn Baker, the union’s press secretary, told me, though he noted that CCPOA does oppose one aspect of Brown’s plan, that of turning control of the remaining 1,100 juvenile offenders over to counties.

Brown’s policy is only one facet of the changes that could be in store for the California justice system. The electorate almost certainly will have a chance to vote on far-reaching initiatives that would abolish California’s dysfunctional death penalty and blunt aspects of the three-strikes law.

Crime victims no doubt will try to block the changes. And no one will be more active than Mike Reynolds.

Reynolds had turned 50 when I first met him in 1994. The sort of guy you’d want as a neighbor, Reynolds described himself as “short, little fat guy,” who got married on Valentine’s Day and wanted nothing other than to work at his craft, photography, and raise his three children.

In 1992, two men attacked his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, outside a restaurant in Fresno’s Tower District and tried to steal her purse. She resisted and they shot her to death.

“My daughter had the guts to stand up to those two jerks,” he told me back then. “The least I can do is do everything I can to try to prevent this from happening to some other kid.”

Reynolds responded with the three-strikes initiative. Corrections officials estimated at the time that three strikes would push the prison population, then 124,000, to 230,000 inmates within six years.

It never reached that point. But while courts have softened the three-strikes law, about 32,000 inmates are serving sentences that are twice as long as they would be without the law, and 9,000 prisoners are serving life sentences after having committed a third felony.

Like advocates of the proposed initiative to abolish the death penalty, proponents of the initiative to roll back aspects of three strikes make a cost argument. They cite the legislative analyst’s estimate that the change contemplated by the new measure could save the state $100 million a year.

“Californians will have the opportunity to restore the original intent of the three-strikes law,” campaign spokesman Dan Newman said.

Reynolds points out that crime has fallen since three strikes took effect. Experts agree that incarceration has helped lower crime. But that’s only part of the explanation. There are other reasons, not the least of which is an aging population.

“The pathway to hell is paved with good intentions,” Reynolds told me the other day. “More crime means more victims, but people proposing this could care less about that. It won’t be less cost. It will cost more.”

Reynolds has become a savvy advocate. But to wage a campaign, he will need money. Moneyed interests rarely get involved in crime measures. That may be especially true this year when there will be numerous competing initiatives and campaigns.

In 1994, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association helped push for three strikes by donating $40,000. A decade later, CCPOA helped lead the campaign to defeat an initiative to weaken three strikes.

The union hasn’t decided how to spend its campaign money for 2012. But spokesman Baker said three-strikes critics “have expressed legitimate concerns.”

“We may be amenable to reasonable modification,” Baker said.

Of course, momentum can change. Reynolds’ three strikes initiative languished until a paroled convict, Richard Allen Davis, broke into a slumber party in Petaluma, kidnapped 12-year-old Polly Klaas and killed her. Davis is now on death row.

But even without the initiatives to modify three strikes and end the death penalty, California’s criminal justice system is changing dramatically. It’s not without risks. But the state could not sustain spending ever greater sums on prisons.          

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