By Courtney Lam.

America’s ‘tough on crime’ policies, including harsh sentencing laws, have resulted in the world’s largest prison population. These practices have generated a costly system of mass incarceration that exacerbates poor prison conditions and cultivates violence. Unfortunately, California has become a prime example of this ineffective andunsustainable system. In 2011, the Plata Court upheld a ruling that California needed to reduce its prison populations in order to provide constitutionally adequate health care. In response, California enacted Public Safety Realignment, which required counties to assume responsibility for individuals convicted of low-level crimes. Realignment was not meant to replicate the failed state system; rather it was intended to give counties the opportunity to create alternatives to incarceration. Counties should now consider proportional sentencing and treatment programs to prevent overcrowding in county jails.

To help address the issue of overcrowding in jails and maintain that jail bed space is used effectively, sentencing policies need to be examined. County jails were not intended to house people for long periods of time. They cannot provide long-term treatment, educational, medical, or mental health programs. Nonetheless, as of March 2013, there were 1,109 people in county jails across the state serving 5-10 year sentences, with the longest sentence being 42 years for trafficking 211 kg of cocaine. These are disproportionate sentences when considering these individuals have committed non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual crimes.

Counties can also implement reentry, mental health, and education programs in conjunction with shorter sentences. These programs lower recidivism by allowing those who are incarcerated to access treatment and gain the skills they need to become contributing members of society. The Washington State Institute for Public Policyfound a number of programs that demonstrated success under a cost-benefit analysis:

  • Educational programs in prison
  • Inpatient intensive drug treatment during incarceration
  • Outpatient/non-intensive drug treatment during incarceration
  • Cognitive behavioral treatment for high to moderate risk offenders
  • Employment training/job assistance in the community
  • Alternative sentencing for drug offenses

News stories like Dustin James Kinnear often make headlines in support for harsh punishments like mandatory minimumsThree Strikes, and 10-20-Life while advocating against innovative measures like Realignment. Critics often use these examples to express their concerns about public safety and the county’s ability to manage increasing jail populations. However, strict sentencing will not ease these fears. Many of these policies have been based off the theory of incapacitation. However, incapacitation only works as long as that person is incarcerated. Indefinite incarceration for each person who has committed a crime in fear of what they may do when they are released is not a feasible solution. Further, research shows that incapacitation does not guarantee lower crime rates.

California has made progress in enacting Realignment to help lower prison populations. To prevent counties from facing the same overcrowding issues, investing in alternatives to incarceration that promote public safety should be considered. In lieu of these punitive sentences, evidence-based programs and proportional sentencing should be implemented.

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Originally posted at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.