California has spent the past two decades learning a harsh, expensive lesson: The state does not have the financial resources to keep pace with the consequences of the hard-line sentencing laws imposed in the 1990s.
The Supreme Court's mandate that California release 33,000 prisoners from its $10 billion prison system confirms the insanity of trying to house nearly 120,000 prisoners at an annual cost of $47,000 per inmate. Politicians have known for years that comprehensive sentencing reform is the solution, but they have lacked the courage to pursue it for fear of being labeled soft on crime.
Last week's compromise between Gov. Jerry Brown and Republican and Democratic legislative leaders on prison overcrowding creates a rare window of opportunity for California to seriously address the issue.
"It's pivotal," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told us last week. "This deal takes the focus away from the capacity of our prison system and creates space for a real debate on sentencing reform."
The challenge will be crafting new sentencing laws that deter crime, provide a fair punishment for criminal transgressions and reduce the state's 65 percent recidivism rate -- the highest in the nation. The national average is about 45 percent.
Fortunately, California can look to other states, including Minnesota, as models. Minnesota's approach, which has been endorsed by the American Bar Association, has produced one of the lowest imprisonment rates in the nation, and its prison system costs taxpayers only $457 million a year. Accounting for differences between the two states, this suggests California could save billions each year by taking a similar approach.
The state uses a permanent commission to monitor sentencing based on fairness and available prison capacity. It makes every effort, for example, to get treatment for nonviolent criminals with a history of drug problems, rather than automatically locking them up.
A common misperception is that longer prison sentences reduce the crime rate. The truth is there is very little evidence to prove that keeping someone in prison for five years, rather than, say, four, prevents him or her from committing another crime.
A recent study by the Stanford Three Strikes Project shows that the 1,000 prisoners released early due to Proposition 36, last year's three-strikes reform law, have a lower-than-expected recidivism rate, saving taxpayers more than $10 million. It's a small sample, but it's promising.
Inmates who receive treatment for drug addiction or mental illness, who remain connected to their families and can find employment, are much less likely to return to crime.
California can't afford to incarcerate all the prisoners its sentencing laws create. Comprehensive sentencing reform is the logical next step for California to create a sustainable, efficient and just state prison system.