By Franklin Zimring, San Francisco Chronicle
Boalt Hall has had consistent success for a century in producing leaders for criminal justice in California, but our efforts to influence where we send convicted felons and for how long have had more mixed results. The institution that trained Justices Earl Warren, Roger Traynor and Rose Bird has had more success analyzing and evaluating the state’s crime policy than in changing it.
The law school’s most famous attempt to shape crime policy came in the 1960s when professors Arthur Sherry, Phillip Johnson and Sanford Kadish of Boalt Hall joined with John Kaplan and Herbert Packer of Stanford and Murray Schwartz of UCLA to write a new Penal Code. Hired by the Legislature in 1964, the professors were fired five years later when their proposals, such as reducing marijuana possession penalties, encountered hostility from law enforcement and legislators. That effectively ended the attempt to create a modern Penal Code in California.
So much for hands-on legislative impact. But the scholars were ahead of their time. Nearly all of their main proposals, such as partial decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and diversion programs for felony drug offenders, have since become law.
Berkeley Law created a leading research program in 1985 to evaluate major changes in criminal justice, which led to landmark studies of California law and action. Our wide-ranging study of California’s 1994 “three strikes” law became the book “Punishment and Democracy,” published in 2001. Our research data correctly predicted overcrowding in state prisons and marked increases in state geriatric medical bills.
But these past 25 years of criminal-justice research are a case study in both the potential and the limits of empirical research for the politically charged arena of crime policy. The California version of “three strikes” is a dreadful law, but it’s still on the books long after our critique was published.
Crime and punishment remain the third rail of California public policy, and no amount of empirical data can create change in an emotionally charged political landscape. Our work provides a road map for intelligent reform when, and if, progress becomes a political possibility.