Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Portrait of a Gordian Knot

You won’t find a much better, concise, and depressing overview of what’s happened to corr sent policy in this country and specifically in that coming future state of all of us, CA, than this article, via Real Cost of Prisons. The history is there nationally and of CA’s own special morass, and the essential intractability of dealing with the problem in “normal” ways once it passes a threshold is made clear. (The article gives hope that the courts will be the sword to cut CA’s Gordian Knot, but I’ll have to see what the US Supreme Court finally decides before I’ll believe it. That’s a long time and more Knot off.) I read this right after reading the latest report from NY’s sorta sentencing commission (two of them actually) that repeats all the usual talk but makes clear that it won’t walk any walk of real importance, via Sentencing Law and Policy, and the latest initiative proposal in CA, via Governing Through Crime, to add more time to existing sentences if related to gangs (which, given CA’s history, will pass).

And from all this I conclude that I don’t need to change my earlier views of what’s the only real solution possible in CA, and other states approaching similar situations, despite all the hard work by all the good people there. It’s not the tried-and-true sentencing commission. The only remedy that has a chance is Marvin Frankel’s original proposal for sentencing commissions, a body that MAKES ACTUAL POLICY, subject to review and extraordinary override vote, the way the FED makes monetary policy (another area impossible for legislators to handle effectively) for the US, which is NOT unconstitutional and which, since it is enacted in law by elected legislators and signed by elected executives subject to review at the next election, is NOT taking power from elected officials.

Too many people chant “commission will solve, commission will solve,” when in fact too many commissions haven’t solved. The right conditions have to come together in a state, almost a “perfect storm,” for a commission to have actual impact and long-term accomplishment, and no other state has faced the “storm” that is CA. WI’s meandering and unfocused second commission just bit the dust with the state’s long-overdue budget agreement (the third is undoubtedly around the corner in, oh, three years, is my longest guess). And what sounded like promising commissions when they started, in CO, NJ, VT, MI, etc., have now opted for the penny-wise, pound-foolish approach of not investing in dedicated, specialist staff and, some of them, of cannibalizing their effective statistical analysis centers in order to have any analytical capability at all. Good luck with that. I know the outcome my money’s on.

Senator Romero in CA has been a leader on creating a commission with authority and teeth, but she’s An Army of One for the most part and will be term-limited. As I said, there have been successful commissions, when the state also invests in real alternative sentencing at the same time. But too many commissions are just report-issuers that allow the state to feint allegiance to “evidence-based” policy while going its same old merry way. WI passed its Jessica’s Law without a nod at its commission. We focus on the small number of successes while ignoring the outright failures or the water-treading commissions which have little to no impact at all unless it’s politically convenient for the leadership. Read the CA article and see if that’s on the state’s horizon. So, it’s looking like the “best” outcome actually likely in CA will be a commission that issues safe and unchallenging reports like NY. And hurls them into a black hole that, as the Little Hoover Commission famously said there already, is filled with swirling reports saying the same basic things.

Until that hole collapses on itself, the Knot will just get harder and tighter.

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