In the last few months, the soon to be retired California Governor Jerry Brown has commuted the sentences of 20 murderers who were serving life without parole. But that’s only a small fraction of the impact he’s made on criminal justice reform during his time in office, according to the Washington Post.
From the Post:
Brown has handed out more than 1,100 pardons benefiting a wide array of individuals, including those convicted of dealing drugs, driving while intoxicated and forgery. The tally is staggeringly greater than the totals of his immediate predecessors. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger granted 15 pardons, and Democrat Gray Davis ended with zero.
Perhaps more remarkable are the commutations, which grant parole hearings to — and often spell early release for — criminals who previously may have had no chance of ever being paroled. Brown has issued 82 in the past seven years, far more than any California governor since at least the 1940s.
Unsurprisingly, these decisions have been divisive. Prosecutors and victims’ advocates have condemned the commutations as unsafe and unjust, while proponents of criminal justice reform are ecstatic.
Brown’s idea is to correct the overzealous sentencing that has plagued California since the implementation of the Three Strikes law in the ‘90s, which mandated sentences for offenders who were “convicted of any new felony, having suffered one prior conviction of a serious felony to be sentenced to state prison for twice the term otherwise provided for the crime,” according to the California courts website.
Even outside of Three Strikes, both in California and nationwide, sentence lengths skyrocketed after the ‘70s, leading to the mass incarceration we see today. While most first degree murder sentences in the ‘70s were about ten years, today, it’s common for them to stretch up to 50 years. There are 5,000 people incarcerated with life without parole in California alone. That’s more than in almost any other country on Earth. Outside of the U.S., life without parole is reserved for the most extreme and heinous crimes. And America is one of the only nations that allows children to be sentenced to life without parole.
America loves to put people in jail for life. This had led to overcrowded and under-resourced prisons. The problem became so bad in California that in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that the overcrowding in California prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Since then, the prison population has dropped by 25 percent in the state, but almost all of those released have been nonviolent offenders.
This is a problem. Contrary to popular belief, mass incarceration was predominantly fueled not by nonviolent drug crime, but by mandatory minimum sentences for violent criminals and laws like Three Strikes. That means that if we want to end mass incarceration, it’s necessary to grapple with the implications of releasing people who have committed violent crimes.
Suffice it to say, not everyone is a fan of this idea. Republican State Assemblyman Michael Harper called the move by Brown “deeply concerning. It is another action by Gov. Brown in a long line of policy that makes California less safe,” he told the Post.
“2018 is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Patricia Wenskunas, founder and CEO of the Crime Survivors Resource Center, told the Post. “The sad reality is, California is not a victim-friendly state. It’s an offender-friendly state.”
But some, like Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, advocate for reducing and commuting sentences. “It really stands out,” she told the Post of Brown’s efforts. “As a country, we need to move away from life without parole as a sentence altogether.” Ghandnoosh points out that extensive research has shown that most people age out of committing violent crimes, and the risk that someone released from prison after the age of 40 will reoffend is extremely low.
“I think there’s wisdom in having the possibility of hope,” Brown told the Post. In addition to this effort to do his part to reform sentencing, Brown, who has four months left in office, also recently helped push through a law that would end cash bail in California.
It’s understandable that victims and their families are worried and upset about the idea of releasing the criminals who hurt them and their loved ones. But nearly every other country on Earth has a system in which people do their time and then are released. Only in America, and a few authoritarian dictatorships, is life in prison such a widely used punishment. And there’s no evidence that releasing these reformed criminals makes us less safe—since Brown began his commutation campaign, California levels of crime have remained low. Crime across the country is currently at half the levels seen in the ‘90s.
As states like California legalize weed, and commute nonviolent drug offenders, the problem of violent offenders will become more and more obvious to those interested in reform. If we’re serious about ending mass incarceration, this difficult conversation is one we need to have.