How California's Prison Population Exploded 

And why the costs of housing inmates skyrocketed at the same time.

Page 5 of 5

It's understandable why indeterminate sentencing is so appealing. A recent report by the California Department of Corrections showed that the state could save up to $600 million a year if it brought its recidivism rate back to pre-1977 levels. Rehabilitation is key. Recent research has shown that education-oriented programs in prison can reduce the odds of re-offending by 29 percent; job training can reduce it by 17 percent, and drug rehabilitation and addiction diversion programs can drop the recidivism rate by 31 percent. Because indeterminate sentencing provides the lure of an early release, it brings prisoners into these programs and consequently cuts recidivism.

Yet despite its attractiveness, indeterminate sentencing is unlikely to return to California anytime soon, Weisberg said. "Most people don't want to return to an old-school indeterminate sentencing system," he said. "No one wants to grant too much power to parole boards anymore."

And, to a certain degree, that's understandable. In the past, parole boards were regularly accused of discrimination, and in the present, they tend to keep inmates, namely lifers, well beyond their minimum terms. But as history has shown, criminal justice in California has never been static. Public opinion and policy can sway suddenly. "If you take a somewhat longer historical perspective, things can change rather dramatically and rather quickly," Weisberg said. "Nothing is destined in this area; everything is in play if the political forces align properly."

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