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The State of Incarceration in California and Nationwide, 2200+ LA Foster Kids Not Seen by Social Workers Last Month…and More


A worthwhile editorial by the NY Times appeared on Sunday, yet law professor and sentencing expert Doug Berman of Sentencing Law and Policy has an interesting analysis of what he says the NY Times editorial board is missing.

The NYT editorial says that the national prison population drop of 3.8% over the last four years is due to the trend toward bipartisan sentencing reforms in many states. The editorial suggests that more states need to use things like risk-assessment data-gathering to create lasting sentencing policy reforms. Here are some clips:

Underlying the state reforms is a relatively new and more sophisticated way of using data about the offender — including criminal history, drug abuse and instances of antisocial behavior — to assess the likelihood of that individual’s committing a new crime. And by examining arrest, sentencing and probation data, the states can revise policies that might be driving people back into prison unnecessarily.


Despite the merits of a risk-assessment approach, a report issued earlier this year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center said that many states are still flying blind, because they don’t have the resources to gather data. Moreover, the study noted, handling high-risk and low-risk offenders in the same way is a big mistake, because “low risk individuals have an increased likelihood of recidivism when they are oversupervised or receive treatment or services in the same programs as medium- and high-risk individuals.”

There are proven ways to move away from discredited, ruinously expensive corrections policies. More states need to adopt these approaches.

Doug Berman says that the NYT editorial board missed, among other things, that populous and diverse states like California (and Illinois) should be prime focuses for determining which policies work and which do not. Here are two of them:

I am fully supportive of the ideas and themes in this editorial, but a lot more could and should be said at this dynamic moment of sentencing and corrections reform. For example, in the wake of the latest crime data indicating a spike up in national violent and property crimes (discussed here), this editorial should be stressing the need and importance of a careful state-by-state examination of where crime is going up and whether new (and still emerging) data on changes imprisonment rates and crimes rates provide critical new lessons concerning what we can now conclude about the connections between crime and punishment.

In addition, I think this editorial (and other advocacy concerning these critical issues) ought to be urging sustained examination and analysis of a handful of big jurisdictions in which stories of crime and punishment have been especially dynamic over the last few years. Specifically, I strongly believe that the big states of California, Illinois, New York and Texas, all of which have diverse urban and rural regions and all of which have changes its sentencing laws in diverse ways in recent years, should be a special focal point for sorting through and fairly assessing “proven ways to move away from discredited, ruinously expensive corrections policies.”


In Illinois, legislators are considering a measure by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to impose a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for illegal firearm possession.

An LA Times editorial says that Illinois should learn from California’s current state of extreme over-incarceration, brought on by mandatory minimum sentencing and other overly tough-on-crime laws. Here’s a clip:

Illinois lawmakers are considering whether to require minimum three-year prison sentences for unlawful possession of loaded weapons. If the proposal sounds both familiar and ominous, it should: California has been down this road, and in fact is on it still.

It’s a road paved with fear and desperation, and it leads to a shocking diversion of public resources, prison overcrowding, unconstitutional treatment of inmates, federal court oversight and orders to suspend state laws and release felons before their full time is served. It’s a long road and can take a generation to walk — one tough-on-crime law is merely a first step — but it turns out to be a closed circle, taking weary travelers from get-tough laws like mandatory minimum sentences back again to crime, fear and overreliance on prisons.

Beset by gun violence, especially in Chicago, Illinois finds itself roughly in the spot on that road where California was in the 1980s after a 400% rise in violent crime over a 20-year period. That jump, by itself, increased the prison population. But so did laws passed in response to the jump…

The editorial also advises California to take note of Illinois’ predicament:

Illinois should serve as a reminder of where California once was, with a rising crime rate that so stoked public fear that it moved people to demand that the state just do something, anything, to stop the violence, and to worry about the consequences — the taxpayer costs, the broken neighborhoods, the normalization of prison as a natural part of some young mens’ lives, the revolving door, the reckoning — later.

And Illinois should likewise remind them that California has caught a break, with a historic decline in violent crime and, as a result, public openness to spending more resources on mental health treatment and drug rehab rather than new prison beds. This state’s lawmakers should examine the sentences they and their predecessors have passed into law and the opportunities for smart and safe alternative sentencing that they have previously missed. And they should take hold of the rare political moment to redesign the state’s criminal justice system so that it provides rehabilitation where possible, promotes safe reentry into society, spends public resources wisely and effectively, and still punishes and incapacitates criminals where appropriate.


And ultimately, the example of Illinois should teach lawmakers here the futility of merely pushing the state to a different spot on the same circular road. We need not be fated to 30-year cycles of locking people up and letting them out, depending on the prevailing political or philosophical fashions or even on the ebb and flow of crime.


According to testimony by social workers at Monday’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, over 2200 Los Angeles foster youths were not seen by social workers last month due to severe DCFS understaffing.

KABC’s Michael Linder has the story.


The LA County Board of Supervisors will be voting today (Tuesday) on Supe Molina’s motion to discontinue the previously approved contract to move 500 LA County inmates to a correctional facility in Taft, CA. (Backstory if you missed it: here.)

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