Sacramento rally, organized by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) and Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), is part of the Drop LWOP campaign. Image credit: droplwop.com

UC Extreme Sentencing Project

Grace K. Hong, Gender Studies & Asian American Studies, UCLA

In partnership with the Los Angeles chapter of the community-based organization California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), this pilot study will analyze data acquired from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and collect and analyze original data gathered at the California Institution for Women (CIW) on the effects of long-term prison sentences on California’s communities. This data will allow community members and policymakers to understand how long-term incarceration affects Los Angeles and other California communities. This research project will track how gender, race, socioeconomic status, region/county, and other factors influence the length of sentences and parole decisions. Professor Hong and team prioritize a participatory action research model that centers the perspectives and insights of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. The team will conduct community-based workshops with formerly incarcerated members of CCWP as part of the project design, in particular, the survey development.

In California, several factors have caused the proliferation of long-term sentences, including life and life without parole (LWOP) sentencing, which trap people behind bars for decades or until death. One such factor is the Three Strikes Act (1994, amended 2012) which mandated that anyone sentenced to three felonies would receive a mandatory 25 years-to-life sentence. Another are sentencing enhancements which require mandatory minimums for a variety of situations, including previous felonies, the use of firearms, and “gang affiliation.” Additionally, laws that allow for the prosecution of people characterized as accomplices disproportionately target women and gender-nonconforming people and mandate long-term sentencing. Thus, a disproportionate number of people in women’s prisons, particularly victims of intimate partner violence, are serving long-term sentences for actions committed by other people. A culture of zealous prosecution that emerged in the “tough on crime” era incentivizes DAs to pursue the longest possible sentence upon conviction. There are currently over 5,000 people in California prisons who are relegated to dying behind bars, having been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, and over 27,000 people sentenced to life.

As important as challenging extreme sentencing is to effective decarceration efforts, few studies track extreme sentencing and its effects, making it difficult to advance sound, evidence-based policy solutions. Professor Hong mentions that there is no reliable data on how many incarcerated Californians are affected by extreme sentencing, what complex factors connected to race, gender, class, and sexuality lead to long-term or indefinite sentences, and what factors undermine or enable early release and the granting of parole. This research project aims to fill that gap.