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Imprisoned For Life, Part III

Publication Date: 
February 03, 2012
Source: 
KALW Radio News - The Informant
Author: 
Joaquin Palomino

Professor Robert Weisberg provided a brief history of California's criminal justice system in the following article by the Informant's Joaquin Palomino.

Yesterday, we heard how politics have shaped California’s prison system, and about the push and pull between rehabilitation and punishment. “At the end of the day, corrections was about the bumping of heads of those people that think prison should be for punishment and those people that think that prison should be for rehabilitation,” says JB Wells, who spent almost three decades stuck between the two ideologies.

We know that in that tug of war, rehabilitation has been losing. In the last fiscal year, California spent $9.6 billion on its prison system. Just 4.6% of that went towards rehabilitation programs. In this final part of our series on sentencing in California, KALW’s Joaquin Palomino looks at changes that could reform California’s prison culture.

Tony Cyprien spent 26 years at California State Prison Solano for first-degree murder. Cyprien had been sentenced to life with the chance of parole. Which means to get out, he had to prove to the parole board that he had rehabilitated. For Cyprien, this meant a complete transformation. “I looked at the word ‘rehabilitate,’ to do over again. That means I had to be well to begin with. Well the way I saw my life, I was never habilitated, I never was fixed to be good,” he says.

...

Robert Weisberg runs the criminal justice center at Stanford. He explains that there was a shift in politics and philosophy. “We went to more prison building and a determinate sentencing system and now [we have] this extremely large prison population,” he explains.

Weisberg says when Governor Jerry Brown signed the Determinate Sentencing Act in 1977, he re-made criminal justice. All of a sudden offenders served a set time – and they had no need to prove to anyone they’d changed. That altered the system, away from rehabilitation and towards a focus on punishment.

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To solve this problem, many propose forming a sentencing commission, which would theoretically distance the penal code and criminal justice from politics. “The whole idea is to take some of the bombastic posturing out of criminal justice policy,” says Weisberg, “and treat criminal justice as what it really is: a government program that should be subject to some kind of rational cost-benefit analysis.”

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“If you take a somewhat longer historical perspective, things change rather dramatically and can change rather dramatically,” says Weisberg. “Nothing is destined in this area. Everything is in play if the political forces align properly.”