August 7, 2007

Sentencing reform may target parole system

California is the nation’s uncontested leader in criminal recidivism. We send about 7 out of 10 released prisoners back to prison within two years. That’s a far greater proportion than any other state.


That’s easy to answer. Unlike some other states, California puts everyone coming out of prison on parole. Then, when they miss an appointment with a parole agent or have a “dirty” urinalysis, it’s back to prison for them.

These “technical violators” make up about two-thirds of prison admissions at any given time. Most are non-violent, non-serious offenders. They rotate in and out of prison, staying for an average of five months each time, at an estimated cost of $900 million a year.

Individual parole agents make these decisions, with little or no public oversight.

So, what would happen if traditional parole were eliminated entirely?

That's an intriguing idea that will be debated soon by the American Law Institute as part of its ongoing revision of the Model Penal Code.

The topic came up this week at the annual conference of the National Association of Sentencing Commissions, meeting this week in Oklahoma City. Officials from 27 states - including lawmakers, attorneys, judges, professors, researchers and corrections officials – are meeting under the theme "New Frontiers in Sentencing." And reducing imprisonment through drastic sentencing reform is one aspect of that theme.

"Every state that has tried, beginning with Minnesota and Washington in the 1980s, to deliberately take control of prison growth has had success in doing it," conference presenter Kevin Reitz, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, was quoted by the AP as saying. "An awful lot have done that without sacrificing public safety.”

"We're going to have to do something different,” agreed Oklahoma state Senator Richard Lerblance. “We're going to have to get over the thought that we're soft on crime because we're addressing these issues. We're going to have to get over the idea that we're going to lock them up and leave them there."

The tone of this conference is yet more evidence of the pendulum swing that I’ve been posting about recently. Only, the reformist mood may be slower to reach California, which isn't even a member of the federal and multi-state sentencing consortium.

Hat tip to the “Sentencing Law & Policy” blog for alerting me to this conference. Photo credit: "Remuz" (Creative Commons license).

For more on the California parole system, see "California's Parole Experiment,"
California Journal, August 2002.