While there are questions lingering about criminal justice matters that are being fought for all over the country there is a question that still lingers.
Why do judges levy prison sentences if the convicted criminals aren’t going to serve the entirety of their punishment? Whatever happened to truth in sentencing?
When I was a child, punishment for the bad things I did often came with a timeline. The punishment that was the most painful for me was a week without the phone (needless to say this was before cell phones). I knew when my Mom said, “no phone for one week,” she meant one whole week, seven whole days, or 168 hours.
While I endured the excruciating week-long term of my punishment, I knew that I would think twice before violating any rules again. If my mom had not been thorough on her time periods the lesson would not have been learned.
But to my dismay there seems to be a lot of convicted criminals who don’t have to finish their sentence- and more often than not, their crimes are more significant than coming home past curfew, getting a bad grade on a test, or fighting with their brother. And unfortunately their release most often has nothing to do with them being “rehabilitated” or “learning their lesson.”
Case in point: On June 20, a three-judge panel ordered California to reduce its prison population by 10,000 persons. California has been under court order to reduce its prison population since 2009. While reducing the inmate population should be a priority for the state with notorious overcrowding, the reason for their release will probably give people an uneasy feeling.
The release of the prisoners is a result of lawsuits filed in 1990 and 2001 that alleged overcrowding produces unsafe and unhealthy conditions for those on both sides of the iron bars. When plaintiffs filed motions to convene the three-judge court panel in November 2006, California’s prisons were at 202 percent of design capacity.
In 2009 a court ordered California to shrink the prison population from 202 percent over capacity to a maximum of 137.5 percent, and to accomplish that in two years. California was not given many guidelines to meet the goal, but the court was adamant the state do it without delay and excuse.
In their June order, however, the judges waived all California state laws as they ordered Gov. Jerry Brown to expand good-time credits leading to early release. They also directed the governor to take other steps, including sending more inmates to firefighting camps, paroling elderly felons, and leasing cells at county jails. Attorneys for the state of California pointed out that no state has ever released such a large number of prisoners at once, and that “no data suggests that a sudden release of inmates with [violent] characteristics can be done safely.”
On Aug. 2 the U.S. Supreme Court refused Gov. Brown’s emergency request to halt the release of inmates from that state’s prison system.
Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, the perennial conservatives, dissented from the court’s decision. All three said they would have “granted the state’s request” to halt the release of prisoners.
In a previous article Civitas mentioned that “life doesn’t mean life”. Despite the fact that overcrowding in prisons is an obvious issue that desperately needs to be addressed, the following must be considered:
-Is the purpose of a prison sentence moot if we are not going to follow through and hold criminals accountable for their actions?
-Are we addressing the problem that convicted criminals are committing more crimes after their release, or fueling that pattern of behavior?
-What happens when they go back after committing another crime?
This is not about showing criminals grace or leniency, but rather a demonstration of our court system’s willingness to renege on sentences under the guise of cost-cutting measures.
Is there truth in sentencing?
—Angela Hight is an analyst with the Civitas Institute.