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Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights

Alex Stamm,
ACLU Center for Justice
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June 28, 2013

Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it’s ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature our some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we’ve spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.

Another Dramatic Cut in California’s Prison Population Due This Year

California’s Public Safety Realignment is almost two years old, and the story is familiar to most readers of this blog. But for the uninitiated, here’s a quick recap (full summary here): in 2009, a federal court ordered the State of California to reduce the extreme overcrowding in its prisons (prisons were operating at 200% of design capacity) to a slightly-less-extreme level of 137.5% of design capacity in two years. The reason for the order was that the state was unable to provide its prisoners with constitutionally adequate medical- and mental health care, due largely to its serious overcrowding problem. To comply with the court order, California had to shed about 40,000 prisoners.

To do this, the state legislature passed the Realignment bill, which made counties responsible for people convicted of nonviolent, lower-level offenses. People convicted of these offenses would serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prison, and released prisoners originally convicted of those offenses would be supervised by counties rather than the state. Moreover, people who violate the technical conditions of probation or parole (rather than commit a new offense) could not be returned to state prison.

All of this has had a dramatic effect since the bill took effect in October 2011. California’s state prisons are down to about 119,000 from about 156,000—a 23 percent drop in 18 months. But the state’s prisons are only designed to hold 80,000, and California must release about 9,000 more to meet the court’s target.

This brings us to the present development. Gov. Brown has fought in court to end Realignment, to no avail. Last week, a panel of federal judges ordered Gov. Brown to take “whatever steps necessary” to reduce the state’s prison population to 110,000 by the end of the year. That will likely mean releasing a number of prisoners early; the state has compiled a list of prisoners who can safely be released using credits for good behavior and participation in rehabilitative programming. You can read the court’s order here.

Other Interesting Items from the Past Week

  • A scaled-back version of Oregon’s HB 3194 passed the House this week, 40-18. Among other changes, the measure would reduce sentences for certain drug and property crimes, allow probation offices to modify the conditions of probation, and would allow a probationer to earn a reduction in length of supervision for complying with the terms of supervision. The bill would also establish a fund for counties that participate in programs aimed at driving down recidivism and keeping people out of prison.
  • In the wake of recent lawsuits over the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices, the New York City Council passed a pair of bills to increase oversight of the city’s police department and expand the ability to sue over racial profiling by officers. Mayor Bloomberg promised to veto the bills, though enough members voted “yes” the first time to override his veto on a second vote.

Want to know how addicted your state is to incarceration? Check out our new map for updates on recent activity in state legislatures to reduce prison populations, with contextual information about each state.

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