The New York Times editorial page gave California some free advice recently, and it was worth every penny: establish a sentencing commission to fix your criminal justice system.
The paper’s argument was understandable. Our prison and justice systems are a total mess, with the prisons constitutionally overcrowded and the chief justice of the State Supreme Court saying that our courts are in crisis. And over the past few decades, the federal government and a number of other states have had sentencing commissions that produced significant reforms.
But things won’t be so easy in California.
Yes, a commission would make sense. But so much of our sentencing and criminal justice system is based into the constitution or initiative law. So a commission would be mostly powerless by itself. To get anywhere, it would have to convince the voters to make multiple changes in the constitution. And who would be willing to fund campaigns for those changes?
California does need a commission to change its constitution, including the parts that involve sentencing and criminal justice. But that commission should be a constitutional revision body, charged with replacing our broken constitution with a new, simpler, shorter document – that doesn’t include matters like sentencing.