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Californians Say: Better Policies, Not More Prisons

Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
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July 22, 2011

The people of California are speaking and they’re saying that they don’t want any new prisons. A poll released this week by The Los Angeles Times and USC demonstrates what criminal justice reform advocates have been saying for years: people would rather have shorter prison sentences for non-violent offenders than foot the bill for rising prison costs.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a California court’s mandate to reduce the state’s overflowing prison population. This year alone, the state plans to spend $9.8 billion on the prison system, ranking it one of the state’s highest budget expenditures. Even with all this spending, California still has the highest recidivism rate in the country – with 70% of individuals who go to prison committing subsequent crimes. Clearly, more spending on prisons doesn’t equal a safer California.

Now we see that the views of the voters of California seem to be in line with the high court’s opinion. Californians are displeased with the amount of money flowing into a system that is plainly not working. According to the poll, more than 60% of voters in California favor reducing sentences for “third-strike” property crimes and 69% favor releasing individuals convicted of low-level non-violent offenses from prison at earlier dates. More than 80% of both Democrats and Republicans who took the poll oppose cutting government services in education or healthcare in order to pay for prisons. Another poll from earlier this year found that 72% of Californians supported reclassifying low-level possession of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The state’s lawmakers have taken the first step to comply with the Supreme Court decision – and public opinion – by enacting and funding AB 109. The law is the most significant reform of the California’s criminal justice system in over 30 years. It shifts responsibility from the state to local authorities for individuals committing non-violent, non-serious offenses and for those on parole. It also includes a funding mechanism whereby the state will provide monetary incentives to counties to reduce their jail populations.

As the state seeks further reforms to its prison systems, other states would be wise to look to California. Prisons around the country are bursting at the seams, while corrections budgets and recidivism rates are exploding. Reducing our reliance on prisons has always made economic sense, but the current fiscal crisis has made that reality more urgent.

Reducing prison populations does not mean compromising public safety. Several traditionally “tough on crime” states have successfully reformed their criminal justice systems in the face of looming budget crises by changing sentencing and parole laws, while continuing to maintain public safety.

States like Texas, Mississippi, and Kentucky have achieved bipartisan reforms in recent years with such tactics as eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing laws, implementing non-prison alternatives for non-violent drug and property crimes, expanding earned credit programs (which allow prisoners to become eligible for parole at earlier dates if they serve exemplary time in prison), and using non-prison alternatives for technical parole and probation violations (like missing a parole meeting). Astonishingly, a third of the national prison admissions are due to technical parole violations (the number rises to two-thirds in California) – not commission of new crimes. And 25% of prison admissions are for non-violent drug offense. Imprisoning these people does little to serve public safety, and the costs are high – we spend $70 billion on corrections per year.

These reforms have successfully saved states prison costs while having little to no effect on public safety. In fact, overall crime rates in these states have decreased steadily since the reforms. After undergoing comprehensive reform in 2007, Texas now has its lowest crime rate since 1973.

With the Supreme Court warning of the unconstitutionality of overbloated prisons, the public telling their representatives in California that their desire to incarcerate is vastly outweighed by their concern over the budget, and little proof that mass incarceration makes us safer – lawmakers across the country would be wise to take further steps to reduce the spending on prisons.

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