A New Grand Bargain on Criminal Justice Sentencing

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 8.34.53 PMOctober, 21, 2013

I’ve watched the various demographics come together, the political parties spar around it, and religious and community organizations find different purpose through it. It is “Prison Reform” And it means different things to different people with very different agendas. For many its about reducing the number of offenders in prison. How that happens can be less important than getting it done. Others describe it as decriminalization, or legalization of drug offenders or other classes of offenders. Governors often talk about putting offenders into drug courts or other problem-solving courts as a way to reduce drug abuse and criminality.It is hard to understand ho we got to this place where the imprisoned have had their sentences doubled or even tripled  in twenty years, while those sentenced to prison have increased some six hundred percent over the past thirty years. How do we begin to undo the damage we have done over the last generation to our communities.

Twelve years ago I wrote a monograph, “Rational Drug Policy Reform”; A Resource Guide (Center for Problem-Solving Courts, 2001). In it, I tried to lay out the arguments for de-criminalization and legalization, in an attempt to show how different the two were, and how important it was for Drug Reform to support hte former and oppose the latter. At the time, it was clear to me those who possessed small quantities of drugs should only be charged with misdemeanors; that demanding felony convictions would destroy far more lives than it would ever save. I described the criminal law as a public health tool or a means to an end, reduction in drug abuse and criminality. Though some of what I wrote didn’t turn out to be especially prescient, I believe the decriminalization of drugs and the reduction of less serious offenses to non-prison offenses has proven to be sound policy.[click on image on left for copy of “Rational Drug Policy Reform”]

So we’re very much in the place we were then. California’s Proposition 36 was a plan to keep drug abusers out of custody,  (pretty much under any circumstance). I wrote my monograph to address the dangers of a law that neither provided incentives or sanctions to the drug offender. Proposition 36 has been forgotten by many, and there is little scientific data to support declaring it a success or failure; an unfortunate circumstance. Today, the Governor has vetoed a bill that would make possession of more serious drugs (cocaine, heroin,……) a felony or misdemeanor, depending on how the D.A. and judge charge/process the offense. Is the Governor right or wrong. He claims that he isn’t opposed to the legislation; only that it ought to be part of a grand criminal justice agreement, that will settle the many criminal justice issues that remain outstanding.

Governor Brown in 1976 reaching a grand Bargain (the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act) that turned out to be a disaster of the first order. Writing about it’s progeny in the Modesto Bee, “California today has more than 1,000 felony sentencing laws and more than 100 felony sentence enhancements spread across 21 sections in the California Penal Code.” Perhaps we need to move forward toward real criminal justice sentencing reform now, rather than put it off for another day.

Systemic Approaches to Sentencing: Part 11

June 17,2012

Evidence Based Sentencing as a Hybrid System : Part 11

Evidence-Basd Sentencing Systems have been described in this series as problem-solving structures. More accurately they are hybrid courts that share the characteristics of traditional  sentencing courts as well as rehabilitative problem solving courts. While they emphasize the need for collaboration, they often start off in a traditional adversarial proceeding. This is particularly true when individuals are convicted of serious or violent offenses. In those cases, the court correctly views their primary responsibility as protector of the victim and community. Evidence-Based Sentencing Systems, as well as more traditional sentencing courts, incapacitate the violent and/or serious felon so they cannot continue their criminal activity, sentence to deter others from committing similar acts, and provide retribution against the offender who has done serious harm to the victim and community. Prison is a probability and even a necessity for many of these serious and violent offenders.

Evidence-Based Sentencing Courts move into problem-solving mode as the felon prepares to reenter the community. In Evidence-Based Sentencing Courts, judges and their teams develop effective structures that apply to all offenders sentenced in their jurisdiction (not just the non-violent). In fact, the structure inherent in an evidence-based sentencing team is designed to hold the offender, as well as collaborating agencies and community programs accountable for their effectiveness or lack of same. At the time Drug Court and Problem-Solving Courts were first  being developed, it was noted that, “In a “structurally accountable system”, participating agencies share program responsibilities and are accountable to each other for program effectiveness, with each participant directly linked to, dependent on, and responsible to the others (J Tauber, California Center For Judicial Education and Research Journal, Drug Courts: a Judicial Manual, Summer 1994; click on facimile on the left to review Section 30; on Structural Accountability).

In other words, If evidence-based sentencing practices are employed, coordination among relevant agencies and community organizations remains essential. Sentencing tracks are required to more effectively sentence and monitor offenders with very different risks and needs. While the sentences may be very different, the same level of coordination and collaboration is required when sentencing, monitoring, and rehabilitating the serious and/or violent offenders, as it is for the non-violent offender.


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