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Editorial

'Parenthood parole' pitfalls

Giving reduced sentences to people simply because they're parents is not strong policy. Lawmakers must adopt the structural reforms needed to fix the prisons in the long term.

September 14, 2011

Back in the bad old days of English jurisprudence, women who faced hanging for theft or other then-capital crimes could "plead their bellies": If they could prove they were pregnant, they could get their sentences commuted or reduced. As evidence of how far we've come in the intervening centuries, a similar system is about to be put into practice in California.

As early as next week, the state prison system is slated to begin releasing mothers convicted of non-serious, non-sexual crimes who have two years or less left in their terms. They will serve the rest of their time at home, with their kids, wearing GPS-enabled ankle bracelets and reporting to parole officers. According to a report by Times staff writer Jack Dolan, nearly half of the 9,500 women in state custody might qualify for such early releases, and the same policy may be applied to fathers in the near future.

We understand the rationale for all this. Families are thought to exert a stabilizing influence on former inmates, making them less likely to commit further crimes. The state is under a federal court order to cut its prison population by at least 30,000 before July 2013, forcing officials to find creative solutions to a very difficult problem. Data show that kids are better off living with their actual parents, even when those parents are convicted felons, than they would be in the foster care system.

But that comes with a caveat: If the newly released inmates don't get the public assistance they need in the form of housing, drug-rehab programs, child welfare and other services, their kids could end up worse off. Moreover, from a fairness standpoint it's very hard to justify giving reduced sentences to people simply because they're parents, when the same opportunity isn't given to non-parents convicted of identical or lesser crimes.

What's galling is that it never should have been necessary to impose such untested and uncertain methods. Lawmakers have known for decades that the prison population was growing to unsustainable levels, yet they ignored the recommendations of numerous experts and blue-ribbon commissions, opting instead to do nothing; the result has been overcrowded conditions and shoddy healthcare that violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The coming parenthood parole, along with Gov. Jerry Brown's plans to send low-level state inmates to county jails, represent last-minute experiments, not well-thought-out corrections policies. Given the current emergency, we don't have better ideas to offer. But after applying such temporary solutions, lawmakers must adopt the structural reforms needed to fix the prisons in the long term, such as changes in mandatory sentencing rules and an increase in prison job training and rehabilitation programs.

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