SACRAMENTO — First came the criminal, the 16-time loser who took Polly Klaas from her Petaluma home at knifepoint. Next came the cameras, a concentration of media attention that elevated the case to a national affair. And now come the reformers, politicians who in response to the crime--or is it the cameras?--have buried the Capitol under a pile of anti-crime proposals.
Three strikes, you're out. One strike, you're in. New prisons. Longer prison sentences. You name it, the get-tough legislation is in play. The bandwagon is so overloaded it has become an in-house joke here, the stuff of cynics. As one wag cracked at a reception after the governor's State of the State address: "Welcome to the Year of the Felon."
With the rush to reform upon us, it might be worthwhile to look back at one of the last times Sacramento got serious about overhauling the criminal justice system. It is a history that seems to reinforce a pet personal theory about reformers: Often, too often, what they promise is the exact opposite of what they produce.
Until the mid-1970s, criminals in California received what were called indeterminate sentences. Under this approach, to offer an admittedly oversimplified description, a convict could be released from prison only after serving a full sentence--or when a parole board decided it was time. This gave power to judges and, more to the point, to parole board members. Put even more simply, it gave power to people, as opposed to calendars and uniform sentence codes. Someone could look a convict in the eye and say, "No. You are not ready." Someone could be held accountable.
Certainly there were problems with this old method. There were conservatives who argued that the parole board had become, in fact, a sieve. It was too lenient. It made too many mistakes. Conversely, liberals complained that parole boards were biased; a black radical imprisoned for car theft, for instance, might face a far more difficult time winning parole than, say, a white murderer. And so a political alliance was forged, and it carried California into a new era of fixed, or determinate, sentences. Punishment would be, as the slogan of the hour went, "swift, certain and definite."
Some exceptions were made--certain convicts still answered to the parole board--but in general, from 1976 forward, California criminals entered prison knowing the day they'd be released. This new approach was not without bugs. Under the uniform sentences recalculated after much legislative negotiation, some serious criminals who had been routinely rejected by the parole board were set loose at once. Automatically. At the same time, prisons began overflowing. Why? The politician's favorite response to crime is to toughen sentences. Legislators look good when they can say they doubled the time for a certain crime. With fixed terms, however, there was no way to release the pressure on a prison population swollen by political zeal for tough anti-crime stances. There was no parole board to determine who might walk in order to create cell space for a more dangerous occupant.
As a result, California's prison population has grown in less than two decades from roughly 20,000 to 120,000. No way could we build prisons fast enough to keep pace. The alternative was to cut mandatory terms--without making it look like anyone up here had gone soft on crime. Thus it was decided that a convict who stayed out of trouble and worked in the prison laundry or such would be released after completing half a sentence. Again, this became a matter of routine. Automatic. "We kept letting them go, quietly, out the back door," said one veteran of the criminal justice machine, "so that we could squeeze more in through the front door."
What does this have to do with Polly Klaas? Well, when the reformers brought us determinate sentences in 1976, Richard Allen Davis, the girl's confessed killer, was serving a six-month to life term for kidnaping. Three times a parole board heard his case for early release. Three times it turned him down as a menace.
With the new system, however, Davis had his sentence recalculated. The uniform sentence for those convicted of his crime was now 72 months. And he was released. Automatically. Three years later, after he kidnaped another woman, Davis received another determinate sentence of 16 years. And in exactly eight years, in late June of last year, he again was released. Automatically.
You know the rest of this sad story, and probably have guessed at its moral: Beware of reformers. Even if their intentions are pure--and even up here, sometimes they are--the consequences of their fast work can be messy, unintended, plain wrong. There are no simple answers.