When the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that California’s prison were so overcrowded and inhumane that they constituted cruel and unusual punishment, it became evident that the state would finally have to act. Many hoped that this would spur new reforms that improved public safety and took into account the rights of prisoners. Governor Jerry Brown, however, just signed a bill that dubiously redefines horrible and violent crimes as no-big-deals that should be dealt with at the local level by even more cash-strapped counties.
The Associated Press reports that these crimes include: “Involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, killing or injuring a police officer while resisting arrest, participating in a lynching, possession of weapons of mass destruction, possessing explosives, threatening a witness or juror, and using arson or explosives to terrorize a health facility or church.” Yes, you read that correctly — if someone possesses a weapon of mass destruction, participates in a lynching, or commits acts of terror in California they’re not going to go to prison; instead they are going to county jails for what are sure to be much reduced sentences. Because those are just, you know, community disturbances.
The problem with having counties deal with the problem is that sentences are likely to be shorter and the counties themselves likely don’t have the institutional resources to offer alternatives to incarceration. This means that instead of instituting broad-based reform, the state of California is just leaving a giant void in who should have to deal with that long list of crimes. Counties don’t have the resources and the state doesn’t want responsibility, which means that more hardened criminals are going to be out on the streets — with little support system to disincentivize doing it again.
What California should be doing is investing in better rehabilitation services — or at least programs that ensure that these kinds of crimes won’t happen in the first place. Of course, that costs money, something that the state is currently running a bit short on. And because California is uniquely ungovernable, it seems unlikely that anything besides a piecemeal and ineffective reform will get passed anytime soon. It’s too bad, because what just got signed is unlikely to help out prisoners, but a whole lot more likely to make our streets more dangerous.
Photo from miss_millions via flickr.