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Community Commentary: California needs to change mandatory-minimum sentencing

December 03, 2011|By Daniel Shane

Prison reform has dominated California's budgeting discussions. When a state with 10% of the nation's prisoners makes 20% of the nation's prison expenditures, something must be wrong. Or so the argument goes.

To save money, Gov. Jerry Brown recently began moving about 15,000 prisoners from state prisons to county jails. But space is filling up quickly.

The Orange County Register reported the state transfers to Orange County in October totaled 292 — more than twice the 143 for which the county planned. As more jail space becomes necessary, Orange County will need to terminate its contracts with federal immigration and customs groups that are projected to generate net income of $21 million in 2011 alone.

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Some counties have gotten creative in dealing with rising incarceration costs. Riverside County, for example, will bill prison living expenses to inmates with the means to pay beginning this month.

In recent years and months, we have seen state legislators turn to makeshift measures and budget stopgaps because politics get in the way of real prison reform.

Politicians frame the prison reform debate in the polarized manner of "hard on crime" versus "soft on crime." Reelection-seekers feel they simply cannot risk being perceived as the latter.

Another approach to reform is abolishing (or significantly reducing) mandatory-minimum sentencing. Federal mandatory minimums gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s as a tough way to limit drug use and prevent drug-related crime. Mandatory minimums increase the average drug sentence, while limiting judicial discretion. It was not until 1994 that a federal judge could even use discretion in a mandatory minimum-bound case. Congress passed the Safety Valve bill in 1994, but to even qualify, a defendant still needs to meet five strict qualifications.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates the cost of incarceration at $24,000 a year per inmate. The lower the mandatory minimum in a case, the more discretion a judge can apply, and the more power a judge can maintain in sentencing, resulting in more federal money becoming available to close the federal deficit or to help balance state budgets.

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