Criminal Policy Reform Gets Mixed Reviews

Posted on by Townsend Myers

'Unequal Justice in America' photo (c) 2013, DonkeyHotey - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/A new report from the Stanford University Criminal Justice Center examines the response of stakeholders in the California criminal justice system to the state’s now two-year-old prison realignment program. [Full text of the Stanford repot is here.] Two years ago, California shifted responsibility for most low-level criminal offenders from the state to individual counties. The policy shift, according to the new study, is getting mixed reviews from law enforcement and criminal justice officials.

The California program, drafted in response to ballooning incarceration rates and the corresponding increase in the state’s budget, was enacted in response to a federal court order to reduce prison populations in the state. The theory of the program was to shift away from mass state incarceration by diverting some inmates from state to local jails,  increasing the number of inmates released on parole, and emphasizing treatment over incarceration for some offenders.

The report concludes that most are cautiously optimistic about the program. “What was most surprising was nobody said it should be repealed,” said Stanford law professor Joan Petersilia, the study’s author. “They are on board seriously; it’s not just mouthing it, because they know the previous system was failing on almost every dimension.”

Probation officers and public defenders were the most enthusiastic about the changes taking place under the program. Prosecutors, by and large, were the least supportive. Judges and police officers had the most mixed reviews, and their opinions seemed to vary with the degree to which the new program had increased their workload.

As a criminal defense attorney, I am always optimistic about ways to reform the criminal justice system. The bullet points of my own thoughts roughly mirror the attempts being made in California. Far too many people are incarcerated in this country, and lives that are already wrecked by poverty, substance abuse and bad choices are being all but permanently ruined under our current system. In this criminal lawyer’s opinion, California is on the right track, and more states should consider reforms that attempt to decrease incarceration rates by doing some combination of the following:

  • Develop justice programs that emphasize treatment, job training and other pre-trial diversion concepts that allow offenders to accept responsibility for criminal conduct without jeopardizing their future with stigmatizing criminal convictions;
  • Reform our current system of probation to emphasize job training – requiring probationers to work, but also making sure there are appropriate jobs for them;
  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for repeat, non-violent offenders.
  • Bring the cost of our criminal justice system into balance with its net benefit to society, by assigning a true “value” to criminal conduct and a true “cost” to the programs we propose to deal with it.

Certainly there analysis of the California program to come. And as other states hopefully adopt similarly focused programs,  data will be available to measure the effectiveness of these reforms. As far as I am concerned, trying something is better than doing nothing. They say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I say when it is broken, try anything to fix it.

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