Former Gov. Jerry Brown said Thursday that a prison sentencing law touted as a historic reform when he signed it 25 years ago has been an “abysmal failure,” saddling California with parolees who are ill-prepared for release, unremorseful and likely to commit new crimes.
Testifying before a government oversight panel, Brown, now mayor of Oakland, said the state should end its experiment with so-called determinate sentencing and replace it with something like the old model, which required most inmates to earn their freedom by convincing parole boards that they were rehabilitated.
Deriding California prisons as “postgraduate schools of crime,” Brown said 80% of those paroled to Oakland wind up back behind bars within three years. Half of all violent crimes in the Bay Area city, he said, are committed by those on parole or probation.
“It’s a treadmill; it’s a merry-go-round; it’s a scandal,” Brown told members of the Little Hoover Commission in a booming voice loaded with outrage.
Brown’s testimony was a rarity in the world of politics. It is not often that a former governor -- even an iconoclast such as Brown -- declares that he shares responsibility for a mistake that resulted in a radical shift in public policy.
In an interview, Brown said he had doubts about the law from the start -- doubts that multiplied as he journeyed from governor, a job distant from the day-to-day realities of the street, to mayor of a city that experienced 113 homicides last year. But he signed the bill at a time of widespread discontent with California’s sentencing and incarceration policies.
Flanked by his police chief and other Oakland officials, Brown said any change in the sentencing law that he helped bring about must be accompanied by an expansion of programs to ensure that prison time is “not just idleness” and a chance to “do push-ups.”
Although all inmates are expected to work or participate in job training or education programs, slots are scarce. At a recent Capitol hearing, one Corrections Department official estimated that education -- whether academic or vocational -- is available to only about a quarter of California’s 159,000 inmates.
A pre-release program for inmates nearing their parole date is inadequate as well, Corrections Director Edward S. Alameida conceded at his Senate confirmation hearing last year.
The program, designed to help inmates with money management, landing a job and other life skills, is not available at every prison, lasts only a few weeks and is voluntary, said a department spokesman, noting that a shortage of money has prevented its expansion.
Such realities, Brown argued, have created a system that spews out about 126,000 parolees annually who, for the most part, have “no skills to get a job in the market economy” and no incentive while in prison to develop them.
“There has to be a clear pathway to improvement,” Brown said. “You’ve got the key to your jailhouse door. If you don’t want to use it, you sit there forever.”
The mayor’s appearance came as part of the Little Hoover Commission’s scrutiny of California’s parole system. The panel, with members appointed by the governor and the Legislature, plans to issue recommendations on ways to reduce the rate of ex-convicts who commit new crimes or violate their parole and return to prison.
The current sentencing scheme became law in 1977, a time when California had a dozen prisons filled with 21,000 inmates -- compared to 33 prisons and 159,000 today. Signed by Brown and supported by conservatives and liberals alike, the system established fixed terms for most crimes, an effort to create uniformity of punishment.
Excluded from fixed sentencing are those convicted of murder, attempted murder and kidnapping -- about 25,000 inmates now serving life with the possibility of parole. They must serve a minimum number of years before trying to win release from the Board of Prison Terms and, ultimately, Gov. Gray Davis.
Before 1977, California lived under an indeterminate sentencing system for more than half a century. Convicts were given broad, open-ended terms for many crimes -- first-degree robbery, for example, was five years to life -- and inmates were to be released after they convinced parole boards they were rehabilitated and had a plan for life on the outside.
Critics from varying political perspectives, however, found things to dislike about that system. Prisoners and their supporters said the parole boards’ decisions were arbitrary, influenced by politics and race.
Conservatives said economics often pressured parole boards to release inmates prematurely to save money. Scholars argued that there was no conclusive evidence that inmates were leaving prison truly rehabilitated.
Thus was born the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act, carried by a Republican from Walnut Creek and passed after two years of debate. At the time, it was praised by some correctional experts as the most fundamental change in California’s prison system in 60 years.
Brown is not the first to question whether determinate sentencing has fulfilled its promise. Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, for one, put forth reform proposals when he was in the state Senate.
Scholars say revisiting the sentencing law is a good idea, though they question whether a return to the old system is possible.
“At this point, what we have in California is the most incoherent penal code on Earth, so a comprehensive revision would be nice,” said Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.
He added, however, that sentencing changes are complicated by the voter-approved three-strikes initiative.
Such complications notwithstanding, state Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), whose district includes Oakland, said he will push legislation this year to return to a system outlined by Brown.
Byron Tucker, a spokesman for the governor, said Davis has no specific position on such a bill, but would be “willing to consider any option that would reduce crime and recidivism among ex-convicts.”
In 1976, when Brown signed the determinate sentencing law, Davis was his chief of staff.