Down to the Wire: California's Prison Crisis

On Monday, federal judges granted California Gov. Jerry Brown an additional 28 days to meet a court order to reduce the prison population by February 24. Brown now must take immediate action to combat the state’s overcrowding crisis.

October 24, 2013
California Mass Incarceration Governor Brown

On Monday, federal judges granted California Gov. Jerry Brown an additional 28 days to meet a court order that the state reduce its prison population by 9,600 by February 24. Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would not hear Brown’s appeal to avoid the mandate. Brown now must take drastic and immediate action to combat the state’s overcrowding crisis.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. According to the Los Angeles Times, Brown’s actions so far have moved California only halfway toward meeting the population cap. In a hurry to meet the deadline, Brown signed three separate contracts with private prison companies to house 3,180 people. These contracts will cost the state nearly $70 million over the next five years.

Brown also increased the number of prisoners sent to inmate firefighting programs around the state. In the past these Conservation Camps were limited to minimum custody nonviolent offenders as a public safety precaution. But, for lack of better options, violent and sex offenders have now been relocated to firefighter camps.

While the court established the prison population cap in order to ensure better medical and mental health care for state prisoners, it appears that private prison companies may gain the most from California’s prison crisis. Private contracts minimize the state’s ability to oversee safety standards and ensure adequate medical care within prisons. The jury is out as to whether profit-driven private companies actually reduce costs to the state and the taxpayer. But they do create perverse financial incentives to lock up more people.

Federal judges have temporarily blocked Brown from signing deals with private prison companies to incarcerate Californians out of state – already, 8,300 are housed in neighboring states. This should force Brown to find other – more humane – solutions. For example, he may be forced to reconsider legislation like California Senate Bill 649, which would have allowed for prosecutorial discretion in drug offenses, giving prosecutors the ability to divert certain offenders away from prison to save harsh punishments for worse crimes. (Gov. Brown vetoed this bill on October 12.)

But these reforms may be too little, too late for a federal court fed up with the state’s procrastination. While the three judge panel continues to encourage mediation and settlement amongst the parties, it refused the Governor’s October request for three more years to implement reforms focused on rehabilitation services. The judiciary is clearly fed up with political feet-dragging as it continues to grant only minimal extensions to the final deadlines – from May 23, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2013 to Jan. 27, 2014 to Feb. 24, 2014.

Brown’s decision to enter into $69.5 million dollars worth of private prison contracts suggests he believes there is no political traction for “smart on crime” reforms in California. Jessica Eaglin, Counsel at the Brennan Center, challenged this notion today during an address to the Association of Criminal Justice Research: “New data continues to emphasize the economic benefits of reducing incarceration while proving that over-punishment does not boost public safety,” she said. “A growing number of both conservatives and progressives are continuing to push for meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system.” California, with the worst overcrowding crisis in the nation, shouldn’t be the exception – and the public should demand that the Governor adopt a smarter approach despite his time constraints.

(Photo: Colorlines)