In the 1970s, a single state law completely transformed the way California sentenced its criminals. The Uniform Determinate Sentencing Law was signed in 1976 by Governor Jerry Brown (yes, the same guy). Shortly thereafter the prison population began to metastasize.
Here’s what happened:
The language of the law literally says: “the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment.” Beforehand, rehabilitation had been the penal system’s primary agenda. But with the new law, punishment became the explicit goal.
How it used to be
Prior to 1977 California judges would typically sentence convicted offenders to very broad-ranging prison terms (say, five years to life for armed robbery). After an inmate had served a minimal period amount of time, a parole board would then determine the remaining sentence length. The board’s decision was supposed to be influenced by how the inmate had behaved during his/her sentence and the demonstrated degree of “rehabilitation” (completing classes and job training, attending counseling, etc.).
Interestingly, this process – known as indeterminate sentencing – became increasingly unpopular among both conservative and liberal political leaders: conservatives expressed concern that parole boards were releasing inmates too early, while liberals alleged that the boards too often made discriminatory decisions based on factors like race.
Determinate sentencing was intended to make that process less arbitrary. After 1977, the vast majority of convicted felons received fixed – or “determinate” – prison terms, and no longer appeared before a parole board before being released. The state legislature decided on “triads” of specific sentence lengths for certain crimes. So, whereas previously, first-degree burglary might have gotten you, say, one to 50 years, the exact same crime was now punishable by a strictly defined term of, say, two, four, or six years.
Trial judges were required to impose the middle sentence unless overriding evidence justified a lower or higher term. (In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated this last part of the law (Cunningham vs. California), ruling it a violation of the Sixth Amendment’s trial by jury requirement)
This new system, however, effectively got rid of many of the incentives inmates had to seek rehabilitation services. Prison terms were now pretty much set in stone regardless of good or bad behavior (with the exception of a very modest fixed reduction for good conduct). And as a result, increasingly fewer resources were directed towards rehabilitative services.
The big increase
As violent crime rates around the country rose in the 1970s and 1980s, so too did tough on-crime political positions, especially in California. determinate sentencing gave state lawmakers the authority to determine and change the length of prison sentences. And because few elected officials wanted to appear soft on crime, the legislature kept jacking up prison terms for various relatively minor offenses.
In the two decades after the enactment of determinate sentencing in California, state lawmakers enacted nearly 100 laws that significantly enhanced sentences for various felonies. In particular, harsher punishments for non-serious, non-violent crimes like drug offenses resulted in the long-term incarceration of thousands of offenders who, previous to 1977, may have gotten only very brief terms or not gone to prison at all.
When interviewed in 2007, three decades after signing the determinate sentencing law, Jerry Brown expressed regret, noting:: “Determinate sentencing, as it has worked out, is itself arbitrary.”
During that thirty year period, the state’s prison population increased by almost 900 percent.
The Parole Factor
The nature of parole changed as well after determinate sentencing took effect. It used to be that parole basically meant early release. Determinate sentencing pretty much eliminated that possibility. Ever since 1977, almost all released offenders (non-lifers) get placed under parole supervision for up to three years, during which time the ex-offender is “supervised” by a parole agent and required to follow specific conditions. In theory, the system is intended as much to make sure ex-offenders stay out of trouble as it is to help with their transition back into society.
In actuality, however, the parole system is sorely lacking in the extent of the very needed resources it’s able to provide. And many parolees get sent back to prison as a result of technical violations (called “administrative returns”). In short, parolees receive few services and walk on very thin ice. They can be sent back to prison for slip ups as mundane as not showing up for parole visits or failing a drug test.
That, along with the lack of rehabilitative services that are offered to offenders while still in prison, is a large part of the reason why California now has the highest rate of recidivism in the country. In 1977, the recidivism rate was about 15 percent. Today, close to 70 percent of all ex-offenders return to prison within just three years.