As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Look At That, A Sentencing Commission That Works

An amazing thing happened this week. The Supreme Court, by a 7-2 margin, ruled that federal judges have the leeway to reduce sentences for possession of crack cocaine relative to powder. The disparity in sentencing, which has significant racial overtones, has long been unconscionably unfair. And get this: the US Sentencing Commission unanimously decided to make the guidelines retroactive which could result in thousands of convicts who were unfairly sentenced to be released.

See, there's a national sentencing commission that reviews information and makes recommendations based on logic and common sense, taking the hot-button issue of sentencing out of the political sphere. Yet here in California, we have been stymied at any effort to create such a sentencing commission, and all sentencing legislation moves in the direction of being more punitive rather than less. This is how our jails have become clogged with so many nonviolent offenders, who in the overcrowded environment without proper treatment and rehabilitation often return to jail more violent than when they got there in the first place. The executive branch of this state knows this, yet they refuse to reveal their documents and communications that would confirm it.

States have the ability to break free from the "tough on crime" box and actually change the tilt in favor of jailing more and more citizens for longer and longer periods. Heck, in New Jersey this week they voted to ban the death penalty. But the only way to see any early prison releases in California is when the state miscalculates their sentences.

Up to 33,000 prisoners in California may be entitled to release earlier than scheduled because the state has miscalculated their sentences, corrections officials said Wednesday.

For nearly two years, the overburdened state prison agency has failed to recalculate the sentences of those inmates despite a series of court rulings, including one by the California Supreme Court. The judges said the state applied the wrong formula when crediting certain inmates for good behavior behind bars.

Some inmates released in recent months almost certainly stayed longer in prison than they should have, said corrections officials, employees and advocates for prisoners. Some currently in prison most likely should be free, they said. But many whose sentences are too long are not scheduled to be released for months or years.

The inmates in question -- 19% of the state prison population -- are serving consecutive sentences for violent and nonviolent offenses. The sentencing errors range from a few days to several years.

Corrections officials say they have been unable to calculate the sentences properly because of staffing shortages and outdated computer systems that force analysts to do the complex work by hand.

This directly results from the overcrowding crisis. An overburdened corrections industry cannot keep up with the processing given the meager resources they have. This ends up costing the state more - approximately $26 million annually - than what it would cost to put the proper resources in place, particularly if you factor in the possibility of lawsuits from inmates, as we are now seeing in other respects.

Fixing miscalculations is a step. But until you have the courage and fortitude to address the root causes and meet the same responsibilities that even the federal government has decided to meet, nothing will change.

P.S. There are pending mandatory minimum sentencing bills in the federal government, which would fix the crack/powder sentencing disparity even further. It won't surprise you at all that the version of the bill that Dianne Feinstein supports is completely insufficient to deal with the problem.

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