Gov. Jerry Brown is right: California has criminalized too many acts and enhanced too many penalties without stopping to ask why.
“Before we keep going down this road,” he said in vetoing nine crime and sentencing bills over the weekend, “I think we should pause and reflect how our system of criminal justice could be made more human, more just and more cost-effective.”
We take that statement not as merely a wise admonition but as a call to action. California needs a comprehensive review of its 5,000 criminal statutes. It needs a sentencing commission to provide a holistic view of crimes and penalties, to recommend needed changes — what to roll back, what to toughen up — and to critique legislative proposals. It needs lawmakers who take such recommendations seriously and are prepared to inject some sense into our criminal justice framework.
The Legislature too often proves itself inadequate to the task. Senators and Assembly members carry bills as one-offs that respond to current tragedies, outrages or headlines, or that cater to the needs of particular advocacy groups, even when there is little or no evidence that greater safety or savings will result. There is an entire crime bill industry that measures effectiveness by the number of infractions turned into misdemeanors and misdemeanors turned into felonies. Results have included, for example, more serious charges and stiffer criminal sanctions for the theft of avocados or crustaceans than other goods of similar value, and long sentences for relatively minor nonviolent crimes such as drug possession.
California has a backup plan for its legislative system in the form of the initiative. Voters last year adopted Proposition 47 to redirect the criminal justice industry away from punishing drug use and petty crime with statutes as unyielding and sentences as harsh as those for violent and more serious crimes. In the process, the measure cleaned up some of the penal code’s more bizarre inequities, as with produce and seafood theft.
But the ballot measure process has its own shortcomings, and initiatives can similarly become tools of vested interests. Voter revolts are no substitute for a review process that regularly, systematically and impartially moves through the codes, outside the pressures of partisan politics and elective office, in a quest for criminal laws that provide balance, proportion, desirable outcomes — and justice.
Let’s hope that in his veto message, Brown was not just waxing philosophical and will follow up with a demand on lawmakers, or perhaps his own proposal for a comprehensive statutory overhaul. California needs more than merely a pause and some reflection. It needs a smarter, fairer body of criminal justice laws.