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SANDY BANKS

Can the wrongs in California's criminal justice system be righted?

The state's mix of tough laws and fixed terms doesn't give prison officials the flexibility to push low-risk offenders toward rehabilitation and keep dangerous criminals behind bars.

September 05, 2009|SANDY BANKS

I don't blame Buena Park police for being disappointed when their prime suspect in the death of model Jasmine Fiore hanged himself in a Canadian motel before they could capture him and try him for murder.

"The sadness of this all is that Mr. Jenkins will not stand before an Orange County jury for his crimes," a police lieutenant told reporters, implying that suspected killer Ryan Jenkins cheated the criminal justice system by committing suicide while on the run.

But I didn't feel cheated; I felt oddly relieved when Jenkins' body was discovered last month. He had saved us the trouble and expense of a likely murder trial.

That feeling makes me uncomfortable because I've never subscribed to "lock 'em up and let 'em rot."

But this summer's string of horrific, high-profile kidnappings, beatings and killings has nudged me toward a sort of numbness.

I'm in too deep a funk to worry about the rights of Marcas Fisher, who was on the run for almost a month until the LAPD tracked him down in Las Vegas and arrested him in the killing of Dae'von Bailey, the 6-year-old son of his ex-girlfriend.

Or Charles Samuel, the parolee who absconded from his drug treatment program and allegedly kidnapped, tried to rob and then slashed the throat of 17-year-old Lily Burk.

Or Phillip Garrido, the sex offender charged with kidnapping and rape in the abduction of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who disappeared 18 years ago when she was 11, and reappeared last week, with two children apparently fathered by him.

I know it's wrong, but I don't care if they "stand before a jury" for judgment. Ryan Jenkins did us a favor; maybe the others ought to follow suit.

--

Just writing that sentence made my stomach churn. Yet I must admit to the thought.

It's just that the crush of painfully violent cases this summer has strained my liberal sensibilities and made "criminal justice" seem like an oxymoron.

In California, we've tried tough laws, long terms and a penitentiary construction boom. And still we have to worry about degenerates with long rap sheets preying on women and children.

We house 170,000 convicts in a system built for 100,000. We spend $49,000 a year per inmate -- almost twice the national average. Yet we have one of the nation's highest recidivism rates; 70% of prisoners released on parole are back in prison within three years.

In fact, California is nationally known "for having the most dysfunctional sentencing and parole system" in the country, according to Stanford University professor Joan Petersilia, a criminologist who has spent years working with state officials trying to implement reforms.

"We're too harsh and too lenient. Simultaneously," Petersilia said.

Our mix of tough laws and fixed terms doesn't give prison officials the flexibility to push low-risk offenders toward rehabilitation and keep dangerous criminals behind bars.

But reform efforts haven't gained public traction because we're too busy trying to keep people behind bars -- with Jessica's Law, Megan's Law, the three-strikes law -- to take a hard look at whether locking up more people actually makes us safer.

"The public doesn't understand how illogical the whole system has become," Petersilia said. "We think that somehow we've created something that is able to call out the most dangerous people, send them to prison and keep them in for a very long time.

"And the public is willing to pay whatever it takes to get that type of crime policy."

--

We may be willing, but we're not able anymore. This year's lean state budget requires a $1.2-billion cut in corrections spending, which could come through the release of some inmates to home detention and community facilities.

That may generate safety risks, but it also creates an opportunity to introduce prison and parole reforms that might make us safer down the line, Petersilia said.

"There are some people who should never come out" of prison, she said.

But they often are lumped in with burglars, brawlers, foster kids turned pot dealers.

Legislative plans now on the table "would realign resources with risk," she said; saving money by releasing thousands of "low-risk" inmates to community facilities. Proposals also call for making changes in the parole process that would reduce supervision of all but violent and high-risk offenders, who would then receive more scrutiny.

That would lower parole agents' caseloads, ease prison overcrowding and introduce standards for "risk assessment" that would help corrections officials make better public safety judgments.

The ideas make sense, and I desperately want to believe her. She's trying to jolt me back to my senses.

Petersilia has spent 25 years studying prison reform. She trusts statistics and programs and predictive assessments. "We're trying to make sensible policy," she said, "for the 99.9% percent of people who are not Phillip Garrido."

She wants me to believe that criminal justice, done right, can protect society; can wisely decide how much time an offense is worth and who deserves leniency for what crime.

I listen, and try to push Garrido and that 0.1% from my mind. Because I want to believe in the principles and processes she describes. And the value of every single life.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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