EDITORIAL: California's lawmakers need to work on sentencing reform

FresnoMarch 19, 2014 

Alabama has one. So do Virginia, Utah, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and 16 other states, as does the federal government.

But not California. We're a laggard when it comes to prison sentencing reform. This state needs to establish a commission to make sentencing of convicted criminals consistent, proportionate and in keeping with available tax money used to incarcerate felons.

The "tough on crime" slogans are tired. Politicians need to put down that old club, engage in rational discussion and find bipartisan solutions.

Even in the broken, dysfunctional politics of the nation's capital, some Democrats and Republicans agree on this. They are working together to co-sponsor bipartisan sentencing reform bills in the U.S. House and Senate.

Conservatives such as Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah agree on this issue with liberals such as Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. In the House, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a tea party conservative, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va, are working together on sentencing reform.

They point to states as the "laboratory of experimentation" that have pioneered prison sentencing overhauls. We need that spirit in California.

Republicans at the federal level have been saying our prisons cost too much and are ineffective. Republican-majority legislatures in other states have embraced sentencing reforms that look to data to set sentences, reduce prison populations and bring down costs.

In California, however, it is difficult to get Democrats or Republicans to embrace sentencing reform. Gov. Jerry Brown will go only so far as to say that he will consider setting up an independent sentencing commission. Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, rejects a commission out of hand, saying such efforts are only about shortening sentences.

The Little Hoover Commission last month came out with another report on sentencing, calling the state's criminal justice system a "slow-motion disaster." This time, Little Hoover called for a data center, a Criminal Justice Information Center, to provide solid information to guide sentencing decisions.

A bill that creates a criminal justice policy institute is pending in the Legislature. Lawmakers should approve that minimal step.

If Alabama and other states can reduce prison overcrowding and maintain public safety with an independent, permanent sentencing commission -- on a bipartisan basis -- so can California.

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