California Quietly Continues to Reduce Mass Incarceration

February 17, 2015
Prison Cell in California

California recently achieved two noteworthy milestones: the state’s prison population declined below the federal court-ordered population cap a year ahead of schedule, while the jail population has declined precipitously since November 2014. Both developments signal a shifting tide away from mass incarceration in the state.

The Golden State has long struggled with an untenably large prison population. In response to historically high levels of crime in the 1970s and 1980s, California relied on prison as the one-stop solution. Between 1975 and 2006, California’s prison population increased eightfold – from 20,000 prisoners to 163,000. From 1980 to 2006, California’s jail population more than tripled – from about 24,000 to 80,000. As a recent Brennan Center report illustrates, this increase in incarceration had only a mild effect on public safety since 1990. Indeed, the crime rate has declined by 61 percent in California since 1980 and incarceration had, at best, a ten percent effect realized by 2000.  Since then, increased incarceration had an almost zero effect on crime.

While the prison population exploded, prison capacity did not – and realistically, could not, without the financially-strapped state spending billions on new prisons. The result: California prisons were dangerously overcrowded. By 2011, inadequate prison conditions led the U.S. Supreme Court to order California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity –or by about 40,000 prisoners – over the course of two years. Ongoing litigation extended that deadline to February 28, 2016.

The Governor approved several measures to address the Court’s mandate, including the Public Safety Realignment Act. Implemented in November 2013, “Realignment” shifted responsibility for many low-level, nonviolent offenders from the state to the counties. Many individuals who previously would have been sent to prison were placed in county jails. Initially, this drove the state’s prison population down significantly, but increased the state’s jail population. Accordingly, overall incarceration in the state varied only slightly.

But something remarkable happened in the wake of the Court’s decision – Californians started voting into law pivotal sentencing amendments that would reduce mass incarceration. Proposition 36, passed in 2012, reduced the severity of California’s three-strikes law by requiring that an offender’s “third strike” offense be a serious or violent felony. In 2014, Proposition 47 reclassified certain low level drug possession and theft offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies. Both propositions applied to all individuals sentenced under these laws, including those already incarcerated. 

These reforms are now driving state prison and jail populations down without significantly increasing the state’s overall crime rate. For the second week in a row, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) posted the latest inmate numbers at 112,993, or 136.6 percent of capacity. This is the first time that the state’s prison population reached this level since 1994. The decline is a direct result of Proposition 36 and Proposition 47. Since Proposition 47 took effect, 2,035 inmates have been released from prison. 1,975 inmates have been released since Proposition 36 took effect. 

California jails, too, have experienced reductions in their jail populations in recent months.  Initially, Realignment facilitated shifting inmates from prison to county jails.  The recent sentencing reforms – particularly Proposition 47 – changed this landscape.  Los Angeles County, with the largest jail system in the country, saw its jail population decline by 17%, or 3,200 inmates, since November 2014. The San Diego County jail population, too, declined by 900 inmates. This is a critical development towards reducing overall incarceration in the state beyond simple compliance with the federal mandate.

California still has a long way to go to successfully get its incarcerated population under control. The state continues to send almost 9,000 prisoners out of state in order to comply with the court’s mandate. California increasingly relies on private and public facilities – including by sending 2,000 prisoners to a private facility in the state. The state will spend $12 billion on incarceration this year while trying to accommodate the court’s federal order. Moreover, CDCR’s numbers represent weekly snapshots. It may be that next week the number spikes above the threshold again. On the jails side, the population may creep back up as inmates previously being released early due to overcrowding are now serving as much as 100 percent of their sentences.

It is clear that the state has a ways to go in ensuring recent changes implemented are successfully maintained. Nevertheless, 2015 has proven a promising year thus far for the Golden State in its battle to reduce mass incarceration.  

(Photo: Flickr/JosephKranak)