California’s Prison Experiment

California Prison ExperimentWhat happens when you release thousands of prison inmates before the end of their sentences?

It’s a question at the heart of the effort to address America’s overincarceration crisis. There are the inevitable warnings that crime will go up, but they are rarely borne out by the facts. California’s most recent prison and jail reform offers perhaps the best test case yet.

Until recently, California locked up more people per capita than any other state. It has been under federal court order since 2009 to bring its severely overcrowded prison system below 137.5 percent of capacity, or about 114,000 inmates. It met that modest goal in February, thanks in part to a 2014 ballot initiative that reclassified six low-level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

The initiative, Proposition 47, was expected to lead to the release of thousands of inmates, and cut new admissions by about 3,300 per year. It also required that the cost savings — estimated to be more than $150 million this year — be reinvested into anticrime services like drug rehabilitation, antitruancy efforts and mental health treatment. Victims’ services receive funding, too.

Proposition 47 followed two other major reforms: A 2011 law diverted low-level offenders from state prisons into county jails, and a 2012 ballot initiative scaled back a “three strikes” law. The latter led to the release of more than 2,100 people who had been sentenced to life without parole, some for a third strike as minor as shoplifting.

One sign that Proposition 47 is working is the recidivism rate. It is less than 5 percent for people released under the law; the state average is 42 percent.

After each reform, law enforcement officials predicted that crime would rise, but it continued to drop around the state. Recidivism rates of those released under the three-strikes reform are far below the state average.

Now, two new reports, by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, look at the effect of Proposition 47. The most easily measurable impact is on the state’s prison and county jail population, which has fallen by about 13,000, with more than 4,400 prison inmates released by the end of September.

But the law remains controversial. Some in law enforcement argue that they can’t arrest people for small crimes anymore, and point to crime upticks in some counties. In fact, crime rates vary widely throughout the state. In Los Angeles County, property crime is up 8 percent, while the rate for all crime remains at record lows in San Diego County.

One sign that Proposition 47 is working is the recidivism rate. It is less than 5 percent for people released under the law; the state average is 42 percent.

The reforms may be helping in another way. Because of severe overcrowding in county jails, local sheriffs had been releasing as many as 10,000 people from jail each month, regardless of the risks they posed, simply because there weren’t enough beds. By keeping more low-level offenders out of jail, Proposition 47 gives the authorities room to make smarter decisions about whom to release.

It may be too soon to understand the full impact of Proposition 47, but the damage done by the indiscriminate and lengthy lockup of low-level offenders is all too clear. California’s voters, who have in the past given in to their most punitive impulses, have now opened the door to a more intelligent and humane justice system.

New York Times Editorial Board


    Doing Life for a Misdemeanor:
    I am posting this for my husband, William Blaine Williams. He is currently incarcerated in Orange County’s Theo Lacy Jail and has no access to computers. He has been in prison for almost two decades for the crime of possession of a controlled substance (approximately a quarter gram of heroine). He was given a sentence of 215 years to life, “struck out,” but has been given a reprieve by the voters with the passage of “Prop 36” (a revision of the “Three Strike Law” for violent or serious felonies). He petitioned the court to have his sentenced revoked and was transported from prison to Orange County Jail on November 11th, 2013 and since then has been housed as such at a daily fee of $112 of tax payers money. Since he arrived, the following year on November 5th, 2014, the tax payers, once again, voted to release him with the passage of “Prop 47” reducing his charge to a misdemeanor. However, a year and approximately $80,000 later, he still sits in jail. The district attorney continues to argue to keep him in prison for reasons that should have no bearing on anything what so ever. He has clearly paid his debt to society. His maximum punishment for his crime is currently one year in county jail despite having served almost two decades all funded by tax payers.
    Money Being Wasted In Such A Manner?
    William Blaine Williams
    Booking #2795877
    Case #98NF0866
    Next Court Date: 12-11-15
    Honorable Judge Sheila Hanson, OC Superior Court
    Department #27 (Prop 36 Hearings)
    Honorable Judge Makino, OC Municipal Court
    Department #49 (Prop 47 Hearings)
    District Attorney Lynda Fernandez
    Bar #188282