California to Release Tens of Thousands More Violent Offenders Early

Hans Bader | May 4, 2021 | 3:09pm EDT
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Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) gives a speech. (Photo credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) gives a speech. (Photo credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

California will grant early release to tens of thousands more violent, repeat felons over the next few years. California's governor issued an emergency declaration on Saturday to shorten their sentences.

"With little notice, California on Saturday is increasing early release credits for 76,000 inmates, including violent and repeat felons, as it further trims the population of what once was the nation’s largest state correctional system," Fox News reports.

As ABC News notes, "More than 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes will be eligible for good behavior credits that shorten their sentences by one-third instead of the one-fifth that had been in place since 2017. That includes nearly 20,000 inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole."

Early release will be available even to many inmates who behave badly in jail, because of how little is required to qualify for "good behavior credits." As Hot Air explains,

Prisoners currently serving in California’s work camps will immediately qualify for [an additional] month off of their sentences for every month they have served with “good behavior.” But as one law enforcement official pointed out, even the ones who fail to qualify due to “bad behavior” in any given month don’t really stay any longer. The month they lose can be restored in as little as 12 weeks and it usually is. So basically, everyone is getting “good behavior” credit every month now.

As Hot Air notes, "All of this is being done at a time when Los Angeles just released its statistics showing a 38% increase in homicides...and a similar surge in other violent crimes. San Francisco is experiencing a 'dramatic spike” in murders, along with surges in other crimes, including burglary."

These crime spikes are occurring as newly-elected progressive prosecutors refuse to seek enhanced sentences for repeat violent offenders, and refuse to seek life without parole for murderers (even serial killers), which they view as too harsh. These crime spikes aren't due to COVID-19 or the economy: the crime rate fell during the 2007-2009 recession, and in many other countries, crime rates actually went down during the COVID-19 pandemic. These crime spikes are happening due to soft-on-crime policies.

Now, California will make crime even worse, by releasing many repeat, violent offenders who are already in prison. That will increase the crime rate in two ways. First, it will give released offenders the opportunity to commit more crimes. Second, it will make it less costly for all would-be offenders to commit crimes, by reducing the sentences they serve for committing them.

Longer prison sentences cut the crime rate by making people think twice about committing violent crimes. A study of a California anti-crime law found that longer sentences had "a large deterrent effect" for crimes like willful homicide, rape, and robbery. After Virginia adopted longer prison sentences than neighboring Maryland, it ended up with a violent crime rate less than half of Maryland's.

Political elites like California's governor tend to be hostile to long prison sentences, because they can't understand why harsh penalties are needed to deter crimes. The political elites enjoy their lives immensely, and have a lot to lose from even a short prison sentence. California's progressive governor, Gavin Newsom, is a perfect example: He is "the living embodiment of privilege," because of his "wealth," social "class," privileged upbringing, and "good looks," notes the liberal Sacramento Bee.

To privileged people like Newsom, the criminal justice system looks harsher than it is. If you are well-to-do, and have a loving family, and lots of friends and fawning supporters, spending even a few days in jail away from them seems like a terrible punishment. So politicians and liberal judges often wrongly assume that even a short prison sentence is enough to deter crime. A happy Supreme Court justice who had an idyllic childhood and a wonderful life said that “every day in prison is much longer than any day you’ve ever spent.” That might have been true for him, but it definitely isn't true for many ordinary people. My wife, who grew up in the working class, would gladly trade many sad days in her life for a day in jail. So would I. As a black economist noted, poor people in a "high-crime neighborhood" would see things differently than the Supreme Court justice.

A short sentence isn't enough to deter some would-be criminals from committing crimes. Long sentences are needed because people in crime-prone demographics have less to lose from committing crimes, and thus can only be deterred by harsh penalties. Crime-prone people tend to have dead-end jobs or no job at all, come from a fatherless home, and have a dysfunctional family life. 

Perhaps because political elites set the sentence ranges for crimes, criminals serve sentences that are shorter than most Americans expect. A liberal academic concedes that sentences are "surprisingly shorter than what people think." People he surveyed guessed that sentences for violent crime averaged "20" or "30" years. But the actual average sentence for a violent crime is four years.

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department.

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