In summary

Bills sent to the governor will lead to fewer senseless arrests and fewer people unnecessarily sitting in prison and jail, while saving the state money.

By Anne Irwin, Special to CalMatters

Anne Irwin is founder and director of Smart Justice California, anne@smartjusticeca.org.

For some time, California has set the tone for how this country responds to crime. In the 1990s and 2000s, the state led the way ramping up mass incarceration with harsh three strikes and truth-in-sentencing laws and as prosecutors pushed sentences to the max. Unfortunately, states across the country emulated our draconian tactics. 

Now, California is again leading, but this time in a way we can be proud of. We are setting the tone for a smarter and more equitable criminal justice system. We are making these strides not only because of a series of course-correcting ballot initiatives overwhelmingly supported by voters, but also because of bold legislation passed in Sacramento, especially this session.  The bills sent to the governor will lead to fewer senseless arrests and fewer people unnecessarily sitting in prison and jail, while freeing up resources to invest in building up communities, rather than breaking them down. 

The Racial Justice Act, Assembly Bill 2542, introduced by Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a Democrat from San Jose, is the boldest reform passed this session. It allows people to receive new trials or sentences if racial bias infected any part of their case, from arrest to conviction to sentencing. It is now widely acknowledged that racism is an ever-present cancer in our justice system, and yet we’ve tolerated it. Now, that will begin to change. 

The Legislature also passed the CRISES Act, Assembly Bill 2054, introduced by Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager, a Democrat from Los Angeles,which allows  communities to develop non-law enforcement responses to mental health crises, substance use and other complex issues. 

The Legislature committed to closing the remaining juvenile prisons and to instead funding alternative community-based paths for kids.  It passed bills reducing lengthy and ineffective parole and probation terms, including Assembly Bill 1950, Introduced by Kamlager, which severely shrinks the time people spend on probation and therefore limits the risk of further incarceration due to technical violations. 

The Legislature passed bills to increase the opportunity for parole for those over the age of 50, strengthen oversight of sheriffs’ departments and increase diversion opportunities for very low-level offenses.  Together, these bills will lead to serious change in how justice is meted out in California. 

While the Legislature has unfinished police reform work to do, much of what they passed meets the demands of the moment, when people are marching in the street every night, undeterred even as a pandemic continues unabated and wildfires rage. The legislators who voted in support of these bills should be commended. And we hope the governor will sign these bills. 

Not only are these reforms good policy, they will save the state money. It costs $91,000 to incarcerate a single person each year. Reducing the prison population by just 10% would save the state more than $900 million a year. At a time when our economy is hemorrhaging money, these savings are critical. 

Relying on their well-worn fear-mongering tactics, certain law enforcement unions have tried to convince us that these reforms come at the expense of safety. That is false. Crime in California is at historic lows. We should not be surprised by this result, because when we aren’t throwing all of our resources at prisons that have no rehabilitative impact, we can spend our money on  preventing crime from happening in the first place. When we focus on building up communities, providing health care, and investing in substance use and mental health treatment, we are all safer.

As the president of the United States increases his divisive language about crime in this country, there is enormous pressure right now for our leaders to return to the perceived-to-be politically expedient “tough-on-crime,” “lock-them-up” mantra. Returning to those practices may feel safe to many. Those practices, however, only add to instability, increasing crime while draining our budget. 

The Legislature has shown how to resist this pressure and instead pursue a path that makes this state both safe and fair.  Others should follow its example.

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