Report: Thousands of Incarcerated People in California Are Serving Excessively Long Sentences and Could Be Safely Released

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Oakland, CA – A report released this month found that, despite the fact that California has enacted a series of criminal justice reforms over the past decade, more than 99,000 people remain incarcerated in the state’s prisons.

“Many of these people, disproportionately people of color, are serving excessively long sentences and could be safely released,” a report by the non-profit, For the People, found.

“California’s Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR) law (AB 2942), championed by For The People’s founder and passed in 2018, gives District Attorneys (DAs) a groundbreaking tool to directly and immediately redress the harm caused by mass incarceration and excessive sentences,” the report said. “The law allows DAs to take a ‘second look’ at past sentences that may no longer be in the interest of justice and ask the court to recall sentences and resentence people, resulting in their earlier release and reunification with family and community.”

The report continues, noting, “Of all 50 states, California has the highest number of people serving life or virtual life sentences. Approximately 40,878 people fall within this category, including a significant number whose crime did not involve violence.”

Moreover, “A significant proportion of California’s prison population is comprised of people serving time for an offense committed as a young adult or child, as more than 41% of people currently incarcerated were under age 26 at the time of their offense.”

Nearly half of those in state prison have already served at least 10 years of their sentence.  They find, “Resentencing these people when appropriate would help to combat racial disparities and strengthen public safety.”

Black people make up a greater proportion of those who have served at least seven or 10 years of their sentence in comparison to any other racial/ethnic group.

“While long sentences are often believed to increase public safety, research has revealed that the severity or length of a sentence has little deterrent effect, that people age out of crime, and that recidivism rates decline with age and are the lowest among people who have served the longest sentences for serious crimes,” the report continued.

Contrary to popular belief, “More than half of crime victims in California favor allowing CDCR to shorten sentences for people with serious or violent offenses who are deemed a low risk to public safety, rather than requiring them to serve their full sentences.”

For the People believes that mass incarceration has “disproportionately harmed Black and Brown communities. Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing [PIR] is a powerful tool to help repair the damage.”

They find, “Many people are serving excessively long sentences and can be safely released with savings redirected to more effective crime-reducing interventions.”

Earlier this year, the Vanguard reported on an $18 million pilot project providing resources to counties and prosecutor offices to identify and file motions for early release under California’s PC 1170(D).

‘1170(d)’ Not Just for Reform-Minded DAs – Broad Coalition Looking into Re-Sentencing in California and Beyond

For the People notes, “In 2022, California will spend $871 million to house 8,465 people in prison who have served at least 10 years of their sentence for the types of offenses that many California District Attorneys have begun reevaluating for release.”

They write, “If every DA in California were to launch a PIR initiative in their office, as many as 26,000 people could be safely re- leased back into our communities—and as many as 26,000 families reunited. Savings from reduced incarceration can be invested in drug treatment, mental health care, victim services, and other crime-reducing interventions.”

For the People has developed Best Practices for Prosecutors, these including the creation of a robust resentencing unit, evaluating current CDCR prison data, determining criteria for case review as well as working with the public defender’s office, judges, community-based organizations, and victim services to create the necessary programs and support.

They also list several recommendations for policymakers.

Policymakers should support prosecutor-initiated resentencing at scale.

“[P]olicymakers should develop a funding formula to identify and redirect savings from PIR to support local efforts and county-based resentencing initiatives,” they write.

They should also prioritize measures to reduce excessively long sentences and racial disparities.

“In recent years, California has taken several bold steps to reform policies that drive long sentences and racial disparities in the justice system, including ending mandatory minimum penalties for nonviolent drug offenses, partially  repealing  the  state’s  three-strikes  law,  and  ending  life  without  parole  (LWOP)  sentences  for  youth. Policymakers should build on these reforms by further scaling back any existing overly harsh sentencing practices, eliminating mandatory minimums and reinstating discretion with the court, creating resentencing and/or parole re- view for those serving LWOP, and using savings from reduced incarceration to invest in disadvantaged communities,” they explain.

The programs should also come with support for both those released as well as victims of crime.

This includes rehabilitative programming, support housing for the formerly incarcerated, increased gate money for those leaving prison, and also opportunities to center the needs of crime victims.

“Instead of reflexively placing crime victims in a position of supporting retributive punishments for the people who caused them harm, the criminal justice system should offer opportunities for repair and healing,” they write.

“A holistic approach to justice for communities impacted by violence would center the needs of crime survivors and transform the justice system into a vehicle for accountability, safety, and racial equity. Policymakers should support alternatives to incarceration, whenever possible, and give prosecutors latitude to partner with outside organizations specializing in restorative justice, with the goal of providing healing to those harmed by crime.”

In the pilot program, participating counties include Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Riverside, Contra Costa, San Diego, Yolo, Merced and Humboldt.

“The diversity of these counties is intentional—not only in geography, but in voter base, prosecutor leadership, reentry resources, prison population, and incarceration rates,” the group noted in its announcement.

Hillary Blout, the director of For the People told the Vanguard in August, “This is not for just progressive prosecutors. This is for all prosecutors.”

Blout explained, “We work with prosecutors across the political spectrum on purpose because our view is that every prosecutor, a conservative, moderate, you know, progressive blue, red whatever, that they need to be involved in this work.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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