EDITORIAL: A sentencing commission is best way to fix state prisons

October 16, 2013 

California has come to the end of the line in attempts to delay the inevitable with the state's overcrowded prisons. The U.S. Supreme Court this week rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's prison appeal, the second rejection in three months.

That should focus everybody's minds on the task at hand -- getting the state's prison population from 120,000 inmates to 112,000, and sustaining those levels over time.

The man to take the lead on that task is Brown himself. For that, we'd like to see a return of the crusader of a decade ago. In Feb. 2003, when he was mayor of Oakland, Brown blasted away at the state's sentencing system.

The solutions are readily apparent. Work by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Population Management, the Corrections Independent Review Panel and the Little Hoover Commission point to the solution that has worked in other states: a permanent and independent sentencing commission made up of appropriate members from the judicial, corrections and criminal justice fields, and the public.

Such a commission would serve as a central clearinghouse for all sentencing data, devise sentencing guidelines and regularly assess all proposed sentencing law changes for their potential effect on crime and state resources. As sentencing commissions have done in other states, they would help to depoliticize sentencing -- getting the state away from the cycle of "drive-by sentencing" bills, driven by reactions to sensational one-time events.

The U.S. Supreme Court's definitive denial gives California two major choices: Rethink who goes to prison for how long, with a sentencing commission. Or launch an expensive new prison building boom, like the 21-year, 22-prison building binge that began in 1984.

In an Oct. 12 veto of a drug sentencing bill, Brown promised to "examine in detail" California's current sentencing structure. Californians should hold Brown to that pledge.

California has more than 1,000 felony sentencing laws and more than 100 felony sentence enhancements spread across 21 sections in the California Penal Code. We need a new, simpler organizing framework that has a positive impact in reducing crime and reoffense rates.

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