Big Issue in 2016: Sentencing

From Kat:

Today’s post is all about sentencing. This will be a big issue at the 2016 Legislature since the Penal Code Review Committee just completed 6 months of work. It was an interesting experience to be the only community person on the 28-member committee. One interesting observation I have is that many of the judges serving on the committee who were former prosecutors actually saw the negative impacts of their prosecutorial work and wanted to fix the mess they see in their courtrooms. Almost all of the judges wanted judicial discretion restored and mandatory minimum sentencing to be used in only the most serious cases. Although the committee just kind of nipped around the edges of reform, it’s a start!

We start with an article about President Obama’s recent granting of clemency to some drug law violators. Next is an interesting 12-page report from the California Budget Center on Sentencing –  Moving Toward a Smarter, More Cost-Effective Approach. This is really interesting and I urge those interested in fair and proportional sentencing to read it. Lastly is an article by Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project making the case for 20 year sentences to be the maximum, except in extreme cases, because they are counterproductive and harmful.

Presidential clemency highlights need to fix bad laws
By Jamie Fellner, The Hill, January 07, 2016

“… During our research on coercive plea bargaining in federal drug cases, federal prosecutors acknowledged that current sentencing laws enable them to threaten draconian higher mandatory sentences for defendants who exercise their right to trial. Not surprisingly, almost all (97 percent) federal drug defendants plead guilty.  Avery is one of the relatively few who refused—and paid the price.

“Prosecutors also acknowledged to us that the credibility of their threats would be weakened and  their success in getting pleas would be reduced if they failed to make good on those threats. The end result: sentences for people convicted of federal drug offenses after trial average three times longer than the sentences of those who plead guilty.


“Congress should restore to judges their ability to ensure sensible and fair sentences—and it should take away from prosecutors their ability to coerce pleas and to punish with much higher sentences those who refuse to plead.  Only through such reforms can Congress prevent the sentencing injustices that today prompt the massive quest for clemency.”


Sentencing in CA – Moving Toward a Smarter, More Cost-Effective Approach
California Budget and Policy Center· Criminal Justice · December 2015 · By Selena Teji · 12 pages

Executive Summary
How Does Sentencing Work in California?
Shifting the Focus to Alternative Sentencing Options and Shorter Prison Sentences
Diversifying Sentences Could Both Make Us Safer and Be More Cost-Effective

Endnotes are available in the PDF version.

Executive Summary:

“Californians have a collective interest in living in a safe and healthy environment. The state’s criminal justice system is responsible for reducing crime and intervening when crime occurs, including apprehending and sentencing the perpetrator, in order to promote safe communities. In recent decades, however, harsh, one-size-fits-all sentencing laws contributed to the creation of a bloated and costly correctional system that generally fails to serve the interests of Californians.

“California has adopted significant criminal justice reforms over the past several years.


“Conclusion: Moving California Toward More Effective Sentencing Policies

“Research shows that investing in a broader range of sentencing options that target the underlying causes of criminal behavior and work within the affected community can hold accountable people who commit a crime, reduce reoffending, and strengthen communities. In addition, prioritizing community-based sentencing options and reducing lengths of stay when incarceration is necessary can save the state money through decreased operational costs and reduced crime. In order to ensure that such reforms are successful, California would need to strengthen its investment in community-based corrections infrastructure, including day reporting centers, drug and mental health treatment programs, problem-solving court systems, and services for survivors of crime.”


A 20-Year Maximum for Prison Sentences
Marc Mauer, Democracy Journal, Winter 2016, No. 39 – 6 min. read

“…The heart of the problem, as documented in a major report released by the National Research Council in 2014, is that the tripling of the prison population since 1980 was produced by changes in policy, not crime rates. Half of the prison expansion resulted from sending more people to prison due to the increased adoption of mandatory sentencing policies and prosecutorial charging decisions, while half resulted from longer prison terms. The latter trend is increasingly the major barrier to substantial reductions in incarceration.

“Nationally, one of every nine people in prison—160,000 prisoners—is serving a life  sentence. About a third are serving life without parole, and of the remainder, political considerations—governors and parole officials believing they need to demonstrate how   “tough” they can be on individuals convicted of serious crimes—have made parole release increasingly difficult to secure in many states. In addition, an undetermined number of offenders are serving “virtual life sentences.” For example, a 40-year prison term imposed on a 35-year-old offender essentially equates to life imprisonment.


“No other industrialized nation incarcerates its citizens at more than a fraction of the rate in  the United States. Fewer people are sent to prison in most nations and their terms of   imprisonment are considerably less severe. And notably, such policies have not produced spikes in crime. It is long past time to eliminate mass incarceration, and the only way to        accomplish that will be to think broadly about how far we have come from any reasonable conception of what a fair and effective justice system should look like.”

We need to help Hawai`i move into more progressive sentencing policies. The research supports sentencing reforms. Now it is up to us to educate Hawai`’s policymakers understand the impacts of punitive sentencing.

Mahalo for caring about justice. CAP needs YOUR help to encourage legislators to do the right thing. Please lend your powerful community voice to these issues!

I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter to Clergy from Birmingham Jail




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