When California adopted its criminal sentencing code 30 years ago, a state appeals court marveled that it was virtually incomprehensible, comparing it to income tax forms and insurance policies, says the Associated Press. Since then, the state has added more than 1,000 felony sentencing laws and more than 100 other changes that can lengthen prison terms. As a result, the state’s prisons are so dangerously jammed that federal courts could cap the population, potentially forcing the early release of some inmates.
The number of inmates in California prisons has soared, from nearly 25,000 in 1980 to more than 170,000 this year. The state has an incarceration rate of 475 per 100,000 residents, well above the national average of 445 per 100,000. State legislators have decided to build more prisons and jails, at a cost of $7.8 billion. Proposals by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers to create a commission to review sentencing collapsed this year amid partisan infighting. Some feared that a commission could open prison doors too wide. “We are jammed up with this situation right now because we have fallen in love with one of the most undocumented beliefs: That somehow you get safer if you put more people in jail,” Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata said while reluctantly supporting the construction plan.