Writing in The Sacramento Bee, Ward Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute, likens early releases aimed at shrinking California's prison population to slightly opening the drain of an overflowing bathtub without turning off the spigot. Connerly blames "laws requiring lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent offenders" and "mindless minimum sentences imposed under the state's 'two-strikes' and 'three-strikes' laws" for flooding California's prisons with people who don't belong there. Regarding a new law that will permit the release of some 6,500 prisoners (out of more than 150,000) during the next year, he observes:
California's secretary of corrections called the law a "win-win situation" because it will cut down on recidivism and allow parole agents to focus attention on more-dangerous former convicts. Sentencing-reform advocates, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonpartisan advocacy that opposes one-size-fits-all sentencing laws, could only shake their heads at such a statement.
If the secretary is right, then why were these 6,500 people sentenced to such long terms in the first place? Wouldn't it make more sense to assess risk and recidivism factors and make those part of the sentencing calculation? Unfortunately, California's mandatory-sentencing laws prohibit such sensible reckoning.
Over at The Huffington Post, the Drug Policy Alliance's Jill Harris criticizes a front-page New York Times story that claimed efforts like California's, driven largely by "the rush to save money in grim budgetary times," have "unleashed a backlash" from citizens who worry that dangerous criminals are being set free to prey on them and their children. As Harris notes, the Times presented very little evidence that a popular backlash is occurring or that, if it were, it would have any basis in fact.
In a 2008 column I noted that America leads the free world in locking people up.