FOLSOM, Calif. (AP) — 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.
The appellate judges wondered if the Legislature had used "some long departed Byzantine scholar to create its seemingly endless and convoluted complexities."
Since then, California 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 there is a possibility 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.
So far, political efforts to simplify the convoluted process have failed. However, the Legislature did approve a new law in April to build more prisons and jails, at a cost to the taxpayers of $7.8 billion.
"California's prison policy is to just build more prisons because they can't agree on anything else," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which wants to cap the prison population. "Without a sentencing commission, you're going to eventually fill as many prisons as you build because you're not affecting the number of people going in."
Proposals by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers to create such 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 this spring while reluctantly supporting the construction plan.
The problems with the current system date to 1977, when lawmakers adopted what are called determinate sentences, setting terms of incarceration by law rather than allowing a parole board to decide them on a case-by-case basis. Judges retain some leeway based on the nature of the crime and the criminal's history.
The system is so confusing that even the harshest penalties do little to deter many criminals, said Donald Jones, 42, who has spent much of his life behind bars.
He is serving 76 years to life at California State Prison, Sacramento, for having a stolen lawn mower and an illegal knife while he was on parole in 1996. It was his third offense under California's three-strikes law, after prior offenses including robberies and assaulting a police officer at age 14.
"One of the jurors said that if they'd known it was a third strike they wouldn't have voted to convict because they thought it was too much for receiving stolen property," Jones said in a prison interview.
"To tell you the truth, I heard of the third strike but I didn't know what it was. Somebody told me if you do a lot of violent stuff, they can put you away for a long time, but I never thought about it," he said.
Neither Schwarzenegger's plan nor a competing legislative proposal would touch three-strikes. However, a commission could make strides toward setting appropriate sentences that deter crime, protect public safety and consider the capacity of state prisons, said Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Sally Lieber.
"Our criminal code has become a rabbit's warren of conflicting laws," Lieber said.
A commission would take several years to make recommendations and would take even longer to affect the prison population. But Lieber said it would at least show California is serious about reform as federal judges — who already oversee inmate medical and mental health care, employee discipline, juvenile and parole programs — consider taking more control of the state's prisons.
Talks between Democratic lawmakers and the Republican governor on creating a commission broke down in a fundamental disagreement over how much power the panel should have.
"We don't just want an advisory, blue-ribbon commission," Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero said.
Schwarzenegger, however, insists the commission be only advisory. Law enforcement officials and Republican lawmakers say anything more would usurp the Legislature's responsibility to pass laws.
The Democratic proposals would create an unaccountable group of appointees, Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian said.
"This unelected group is going to decide who stays in our prisons and who gets out," he said.