Our Broken Criminal Justice System

Jeanne Woodford Aug 15_edited-1“The death penalty is only the lid on the garbage can of a very broken criminal justice system,’’ summarized Jeanne Woodford, former Warden at San Quentin, in an inspiring and very informative talk at the LWVBAE Annual Community Luncheon on August 15.

A key problem in California’s system of corrections, pointed out by Ms. Woodford, is that we have a system which does not prepare prisoners to succeed in society upon their release – or even prepare some to simply cope.  Prisoners are released with almost no money, no resources, or without even a place to sleep.  In a poignant story, she told of driving through Richmond where she saw a man on a corner who, by his clothes and the bag he carried, she knew had just been released from San Quentin.  He looked first right – and then left – and then right, but did not venture across the street, obviously uncertain of what to do.

Rather than continue along the failed path of releasing inmates into society who are unprepared for that society, Ms. Woodford stressed that we need to “begin with the end in mind”.  When a prisoner first arrives into the corrections system we need to design programs, specific to the prisoner’s needs, which will make him or her successful upon release.  And further, for re-entry into society, we need to continue to help newly released prisoners with employment, health care, mental health care and housing.

A good step forward is the passage of AB108 and AB117, passed and signed into law in 2011.  These two bills transferred jurisdiction of lower level criminals from the state to the counties, thus avoiding the unnecessary and expensive processing of prisoners formerly remanded to state prisons who were then simply released.   It also provides for money to help with re-entry.  A successful example is San Francisco County, which spends 35% of the funds on Assessment Centers which provide educational and other resources; the prisoners are not “ex-cons” but “clients”.  Unfortunately, this is not the standard across all California counties. 

In addition, Ms. Woodford spoke up for evidence-based sentencing, matching the sentence more closely to the crime – giving appropriate, not excessive, punishment. 

Finally, Ms. Woodford insists we need to quit wasting money on the death penalty, which has not been proven to be a deterrent to crime.  We currently have 729 inmates on death row, with only 13 executed since 1978.  We have spent $4 billion more on those same inmates and their trials as we would have if they had been simply sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

For a transcript of the complete talk click on the link Criminal Justice in California.


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