In his dissent from the majority in the recent Supreme Court decision requiring California to reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that “terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.”
But Californians shouldn’t panic. The state won’t have to throw open the prison doors to meet the court’s order if it embraces very modest sentencing reforms.
Prudent ideas for reducing the prison population have been advocated by various task forces, including ones led by former Gov. George Deukmejian, by former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and by a national panel of corrections experts convened by the Legislature. The California Department of Corrections has already submitted a plan to the federal courts detailing how it expects to make the necessary prison population reductions.
Even without the Supreme Court decision, about 250,000 inmates who have served their time will be released from California prisons over the next two years. In addition, since the late 1990s, jails in 22 counties have been releasing nearly 100,000 inmates a year to meet court-ordered caps on the number of people their facilities can accommodate.
Despite all those releases, crime rates are at the lowest levels since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Serious crime and arrests have been dropping in California and across the nation for years. While criminologists do not have an easy explanation for the huge crime decline, the evidence points to more effective policing, improved prevention programs for at-risk families and an influx of immigrants, who traditionally have very low crime rates.
California could safely reduce its prison population by modestly reducing time served for low-risk offenders (something Gov. Pete Wilson tried successfully), by transferring low-risk inmates to county supervision (as happened under Govs. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and Ronald Reagan) and by slightly reforming the parole system (something that was partially enacted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and continued by Gov. Jerry Brown).
It is worth noting that a number of states, including Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York, Michigan, Ohio and Washington, have reduced their prison populations over the last 25 years, and independent research has found that not one of these states experienced an increase in crime or recidivism following the reductions. In fact, if drug treatment and other reentry services were provided, the rate of repeat offenses often went down.
California has had its own success story in reducing incarceration numbers without ill effect. Faced with serious overcrowding in state prisons for youth, California reduced its youth prison population from more than 10,000 in 1996 to about 1,000 today. This was the largest decline in juvenile incarceration in American history. Yet during this period, serious youth crime dropped throughout the state, and felony arrests for juveniles and young adults also decreased dramatically. The reduction in youths incarcerated by the state did not produce crowding in county youth facilities, nor did it result in more young people being sent to adult prisons.
California’s efforts to deal with juvenile prison overpopulation spurred significant reforms in the treatment of incarcerated youth, and the state was able to shut down six of its oldest and worst facilities.
One key part of this reform involved state funding to build and expand community-based options for youthful offenders. California legislators mandated that nonviolent, non-serious juvenile offenders would be managed by local probation departments and that counties would assume responsibility for reentry and parole supervision. As California looks to needed reforms of its adult sentencing and corrections system, the substantial achievements in its juvenile correction system could offer some pathways to success.
There are some very dangerous people in California prisons, but these are not the inmates who will be released early. There are also, however, thousands of low-risk offenders who are incarcerated for minor drug crimes, petty violations of parole rules and other nonviolent and nonsexual crimes. There are almost 50,000 inmates who now serve fewer than 90 days before they are released. California prisons also house more than 10,000 women, most of whom are no real threat to public safety and are often victims of violent crimes themselves.
Jammed prisons offer no chance for education, mental health or rehabilitation programs. And they can be breeding grounds for more violent crime and victimization. To make our community safer, we must invest in reentry programs to ease the transition from prison back to our neighborhoods. The court’s ruling, far from being a threat to public safety, is an opportunity to reform the broken California penal system, which could mean better outcomes for all of us.
Jeanne Woodford is the former head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and is a senior fellow at the UC Berkeley Law School. Barry Krisberg is research and policy director of the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the UC Berkeley School of Law.