In February, the State of California secured yet another extension to the date by which it must comply with the U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding in its state prisons.  Prior to the February 10, 2014 ruling, the deadline for reductions in prison overcrowding was set for April, but in the latest decision, three federal judges gave the state an additional two years to comply.

California’s prison population is second only to Texas.  Between 2000 and 2010 the inmate population was relatively stable, with a 2010 population of 165,062, or 0.44% of the state’s population, an increase of just 1.3% since 2000.  Long-running lawsuits against overcrowding, particularly from inmates with serious medical or mental health conditions, forced a reduction.  In 2010, the prison population fell by 9.4% to 149,569, but overcrowding remains a serious problem.  California state prisons are currently 44% over the listed capacity.

The state’s increasingly harsh sentencing laws are a significant part of the problem, but despite long sentences and often miserable prison conditions, California’s recidivism rate is much higher than the national average.  Roughly 60% of released prisoners are back behind bars within three years, compared to 44% nationally.  Nor has the current strategy resulted in safer communities.  Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice for 2011 show that although rates for some crimes are below the national average (13% lower for burglary, 20% lower for larceny/theft, and 24% lower for forcible rape), for other rates, California significantly exceeded those for the nation as a whole: violent crimes are 6.4% higher, robbery 27% higher, and motor vehicle thefts a whopping 70% higher.  Given the dire state of California’s public finances and the clear failure of the prison system, it shouldn’t require a court order to persuade the state to re-think its strategy.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s order to reduce the prison population, declaring that the overcrowded conditions were a risk to the health and safety of inmates, and violated their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment.  The state instead sought workarounds, farming out almost 9,000 inmates to private out-of-state correctional facilities, and others to county jails.  Despite these measures, California prisons are still at 144% of their intended capacity.

In their February ruling, the three federal judges reproached state authorities for their inadequate efforts to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling and ordered them to reduce the prison population to 137.5% of capacity within two years.  The judges will now appoint a compliance officer to monitor progress, who will have the authority to release prisoners if the state fails to make adequate progress.  The judges also ruled that there can be no further increase in the number of prisoners held in out-of-state prison facilities.  Prior to the decision, California Governor Jerry Brown, who has fought the federal judges every step of the way on the issue, had been prepared to spend up to $70 million to house inmates in private prisons in neighboring states over the next two years.

Rather than simply moving inmates around, many experts and organizations have been pushing for reforms to California’s harsh sentencing laws.  The state has now agreed to establish a commission to consider such changes.

More than twenty-three organizations involved in criminal justice, faith, health care, housing, women’s, and youth issues jointly released an open letter to Governor Brown; Darrell Steinberg, President pro-tem of the California Senate; and Speaker John Perez in the wake of the latest court ruling.  In it, they recognize that this moment has the potential to be a turning point for California’s badly flawed criminal justice system with its ever-increasing sentences and prison population, and sky-high recidivism rate.

They urge Governor Brown and state leaders to:

  • Reduce the prison population to 137.5% of capacity required by the judicial ruling.
  • Set in place measures to continue the downward trend in the prison population.
  • Implement and expand good time credits.
  • Consider parole for older or sick inmates.
  • Implement the Alternative Custody Program.
  • Ensure that the next Sentencing Commission is more representative of California’s population, rather than being composed mostly of individuals with law-enforcement backgrounds, and task it with aggressively reforming sentencing laws.
  • Cancel all prison expansion plans.
  • Bring home prisoners held in out-of-state prison facilities.
  • Use the Recidivism Reduction Fund solely for reducing recidivism, not for funding prison expansion as at present.
  • Set in place measures to help prevent future crimes.
  • Remove barriers preventing ex-prisoners from accessing anti-poverty programs and public benefits.
  • Use savings from reduced prison costs to fund community anti-poverty programs.

The current crisis represents a great opportunity for California if lawmakers and prison officials will seize it.  The Pew Center estimated that California could save $233 million annually by cutting their recidivism rate by 10%.  Give that their recidivism rate is 36% higher than the national average and that educational and rehabilitative programs can make dramatic cuts to that 44% national average, there is huge potential for the state to make major reductions in its prison population over time, save huge sums of money, and make communities safer.

So far state officials are making the right noises.  Governor Brown declared that “The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer,” whilst Senate President pro-tem Darrell Steinberg said, “We want to fundamentally redirect resources from just locking people up, to reducing recidivism by investing more in mental health, substance abuse, and re-entry.”  Time will now tell if California’s leaders are finally serious about delivering a more effective and humane prison system, and curtailing the run-away incarceration of its citizens and consequent spiraling cost to taxpayers, or if they will continue to prevaricate and delay.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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