California Court Says Enough is Enough: Our Prison Population is Out of Control
On Tuesday, a panel of federal judges ruled that California must reduce its prisoner population by about 40,000 inmates over the next two years.
The ruling wasn't a surprise. After all, earlier this year the same panel issued a preliminary ruling that California's prison-overcrowding crisis was now so acute that it inevitably resulted in unconstitutionally poor levels of medical and mental healthcare for inmates. The preliminary ruling had mandated that the state reduce its prisoner population, but while the state made further arguments and tried to demonstrate that it was making a good-faith effort to improve conditions, the ruling hadn't been enforced.
On Tuesday, the judges, in a scathing ruling, declared California's efforts had utterly failed to improve conditions. So now, absent a successful appeal by the state directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Golden State will have to implement one of the largest prisoner-reduction programs in American history – and at great speed.
For over a decade, I have written about California's ballooning prisoner population – from under 30,000 in the late 1970s to somewhere in the region of 170,000 today – and its skyrocketing imprisonment rate (the number per 100,000 of the general population that is incarcerated at any given moment).
These numbers grew not because more crimes were being committed – for most of the last 15 years, the crime rate has gone down. Yet unlike New York, where the prison population fell following crime declines, in California the relentless march toward mass incarceration continued. It did so because of ham-handed laws like Three Strikes and You're Out, mandatory minimum sentences for categories of drug offenders and a broken parole system that returns a higher percentage of parolees to prison than does any other state.
The results: more and more state dollars have been spent each year on corrections, reaching over $10bn this past fiscal year and leading to huge reductions in the dollars available for other public expenditures, such as on the once-vaunted state university system. Year by year, California remade itself as a state that prioritized high incarceration over virtually every other social investment.
And yet, no matter how much the state spent on building and staffing new prisons -- the numbers of prisons tripled in California in the past quarter century -- it couldn't keep up with the numbers being incarcerated. And so, each year the state's prisons got more and more overcrowded, resulting in hundreds of grown men in many facilities being triple-bunked in gyms and prison dorms. This has had tangible and unpleasant consequences, from epidemics of mental illness and self-mutilation in many prisons to the spread of communicable diseases such as TB, HIV, Hepatitis C and California's own "Valley Fever".
Now the courts have finally said: enough.
Many people will read the judges' ruling and immediately fear the wholesale release of dangerous inmates and a stark decline in public safety. Done badly a prison population-reduction program could indeed have these consequences. Done well, however, it presents more of an opportunity than a threat.
After all, the current system embodies a revolving door ethos: lock 'em up, release 'em onto parole, wait for 'em to screw up and then lock 'em up again. It has become a system that measures its own success by incarceration numbers rather than by the ability to intervene in people's lives to stop them committing new crimes.
Prisoner populations can be reduced in many ways other than simply opening cell doors behind which reside random inmates, in ways that have tangible crime reduction and addition reduction benefits rather than costs. They can be reduced by releasing certain categories of inmates -- non-violent inmates and low-level drug offenders being the obvious ones -- a few months early and placing those individuals into structured, perhaps residential, community program for the first months of their freedom.
They can be reduced by diverting these categories of inmates at the front end, placing them in treatment programs, community service work, even vocational training programs, rather than sending them to prison. They can be reduced by limiting the catch-all nature of California's parole system -- a system that places almost all released prisoners onto three years of parole and then returns huge numbers to prison not for the committing of new crimes but for "technical violations" of the terms of their parole.
These reforms have been advocated by criminal justice experts for years now. Joan Petersilia, a University of California at Irvine criminologist and probably America's leading expert on parole, has called for changes in parole for at least a decade. Jeanne Woodford, one-time head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has long considered the current revolving-door system a recipe for disaster. The Rand Institute has advocated diverting more drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. And so on.
The templates for successful reform are out there. The challenge for California, over the coming months, will be to listen to these voices rather than simply stampede into a wholesale release frenzy.
Simply releasing random prisoners without thought as to where they ought to go or how they ought to be monitored and treated might seem cheaper -- and tempting given the broader collapse that California's state government is undergoing -- but such a move would be entirely self-defeating. It would likely result in the very spikes in crime and decreases in public safety that critics of the court ruling are already so loudly predicting.