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Op-Ed: A new bill would model California prison reform on Norway’s success. Here’s why it misses the mark

Trucks coming off a bridge
Trucks move across Terminal Island, shared by the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, in 2021. A new California prison reform bill focuses too narrowly on training workers to fill trucking jobs.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In Norway, a person-centered prison policy governs from Day One of a sentence. The premise? People in prison are fellow citizens who remain part of society even while incarcerated. Norwegian prisons operate on a principle of normality — the lives of all incarcerated people are supposed to resemble life on the outside as much as possible.

A California prison reform bill reportedly modeled on Norway’s approach unanimously passed the Assembly in May and is now in the Senate. It would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to pilot a program for eligible individuals who would live apart from the prison environment and, as the Senate Appropriations Committee bill summary put it, receive a host of “job readiness skills in a more real world setting.”

Any step is welcome that would allow people in prison to develop life skills conducive to successful reentry. And the bill’s sponsor, Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua of Stockton, deserves credit for pushing the Department of Corrections to try something new.

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But if the point is to infuse California’s prisons with the animating spirit of Norway’s approach, Assembly Bill 2730 is wide of the mark. It instead reflects a fundamental failure of vision — an inability to see people in prison other than in narrow economic terms.

On the surface, the proposed changes sound promising. In addition to job training, according to media reports, more educational opportunities, counseling and drug treatment would be provided. Participants would cook for themselves and do their own laundry.

But nothing in the bill says as much, and the primary purpose of AB 2730 appears to be to give employers access to an untapped pool of workers in a tight labor market. There is a national shortage of long-haul truckers, and participants in the program could earn a Class A license, with many likely to have job offers in hand upon release.

We saw this same logic at work in 2020, when a shortage of firefighters during an especially virulent wildfire season sparked passage of a bill that created a new, streamlined pathway to expungement of felony records. But that law applies only to the small number of people who trained and worked as firefighters while in Department of Corrections custody and who without criminal records could be hired by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Helping some people get decent jobs on release is a worthy legislative goal. But the prison reform bill’s cramped focus on labor market needs contrasts sharply with the Norway model.

In Norwegian prisons, people buy their own groceries, cook their own meals, wear their own clothes and get the training and credentials they will need to compete for jobs upon release. Everyone has their own room with a door that closes and a tiny bathroom. Staff and prisoners eat and socialize together and call one another by their first names.

As much as possible, prison services in Norway are furnished by community providers who report to — and are paid by — the local municipality. This model applies to, among other things, medical care, education and the operation of prison libraries. Overall, the system is designed to encourage productive engagement and prevent learned passivity, all in the service of preparing people for successful lives post-prison.

In Norway, as in California, almost everyone who goes to prison will at some point come home. For the Norwegian Correctional Service, the guiding principle informing all policy decisions is encapsulated in a simple question: What kind of neighbors do you want?

Although seemingly inspired by this broader vision, the California prison reform bill fails to embody it. As currently crafted, it only directs the Department of Corrections to house program participants “in a community campus … away from the prison setting.” No specifics are given as to how this separate campus should operate.

If California wants good neighbors, the proposed program should at a minimum ensure residents greater daily autonomy and promote healthier interactions between residents and staff. Absent an intentional embrace of this more humanitarian ethos, the new unit will probably wind up looking, feeling and functioning just like any of the Department of Corrections’ 33 adult facilities.

Until the mid-1980s, Norway’s prisons operated pretty much like those in the U.S. At that point, facing a recidivism rate of close to 70% as well as profound violence and unrest inside, the Norwegian Correctional Service decided to take a new approach. It appears to have worked. Today, recidivism is as low as 20%, and Norway’s prisons are considerably safer and healthier for both residents and staff. By contrast, over the past decade, the recidivism rate for people coming out of California prisons has averaged 50%.

California corrections officials have recently begun to recognize the promise of the Norway model, helped by a partnership with Amend, a pioneering organization dedicated to changing the culture of American corrections to prioritize the humanity, dignity and health of everyone involved in the system. State prison officials and staff, along with a few state legislators, have visited Norwegian prisons and started to consider how to bring some of Norway’s prison ethos to California.

If the legislators who support this latest prison reform bill really want to bring the Norway model to the state, they should seek to collaborate more closely with Department of Corrections staff and their partners at Amend. Among other things, they might brainstorm specific legislative initiatives that could help get us there.

Meanwhile, any bill that would ease the reentry of people leaving prison deserves legislative support. That includes AB 2730. But make no mistake — its passage won’t get us a jot closer to Norway’s model. True reform won’t happen until we stop prioritizing economic benefits for parties with political clout and start recognizing people in prison as fellow human beings and fellow citizens whose personal success is in everyone’s interest.

Sharon Dolovich is a professor of law at UCLA School of Law and director of UCLA’s Prison Law and Policy Program.


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