Putting Governor Brown’s Sentencing Proposal in Context

Sentencing ProposalGovernor Brown has proposed a ballot measure—the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act—that could significantly alter sentencing in California. If it qualifies for the ballot—which seems likely—and is approved by voters in November, the measure would allow non-violent felons who have earned enough credits for good behavior to spend less time in state prison. It would also shift the power to determine whether juveniles should be tried as adults from prosecutors to judges. The measure follows the path of decreased reliance on incarceration that California has been on since 2009.

Motivated primarily by a federal court’s 2009 mandate to improve health care and reduce overcrowding in the state’s prison system, California has implemented a number of measures that have considerably reduced the prison population. Since reaching a historic high in 2006, the prison population has dropped by 45,000, a decrease of about 26 percent, and the state’s overall incarceration rate is down to levels not seen since the early 1990s.

Although a number of policies have contributed to this decline, it is largely attributable to two recent major reforms: the 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act, or AB 109, which shifted responsibility for many non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenders to county jail and probation systems; and Proposition 47, which reclassified some drug and property felonies as misdemeanors. Since January 2015, two months after voters approved Prop 47, the prison population has remained below the court-mandated target. That is good news for the state. However, the institutional population is only about 1.1 percent, or 900 inmates, below the target. Given this slim margin—and given the fact that the state still needs to show that it is providing adequate health care—the pressure is still on.

Californians appear to be supportive of lessening penalties for crime and downsizing state prisons. Recent criminal justice initiatives, such as Proposition 36 in 2012 (which revised California’s three-strikes law) and Proposition 47 in 2014, passed by rather wide margins—close to 70 percent and around 60 percent respectively.

Voters may well be inclined to see reductions in spending on prisons, and with good reason. California’s corrections budget continues to grow, with the governor requesting $10.6 billion from the General Fund for 2016–17—a historic high. This amount does not include more than $1 billion annually that the state transfers to counties to implement realignment. For 2016–17, the state is projecting the cost of the prison system to be almost $70,000 per prisoner. A significant reduction in the prison population could finally allow the state to stop the use of out-of-state contract beds and possibly close a state prison. These actions could potentially lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings. Without further reductions in the prison population, it will be difficult for the state to stop using contract beds and remain below the court-ordered population cap.

Finally, it should be noted that, unlike realignment and Propositions 36 and 47, which implemented changes based on the kind of offenses committed, this measure focuses mainly on the behavior of the offenders. After they earn enough credits for good behavior and achievements in education and rehabilitation, non-violent prison inmates can be paroled and released early. If this incentive is accompanied by effective educational and rehabilitative programs, it could reduce recidivism. More broadly, this measure, combined with the redirection of spending toward cost-effective crime preventive strategies, could help California use its corrections resources more wisely.

Magnus Lofstrom and Brandon Martin
Viewpoints, The PPIC Blog



  1. Thanks for this good review.
    The governor’s proposal isn’t actually a “sentencing” proposal, because it would not change anyone’s sentence. It would make some categories of people eligible for consideration for parole at an earlier point in their sentences than they are now.

    In negotiations with the federal court, CA said it would have a sentencing commisssion which would make recommendations for legislative consideration about changes in sentences. This has not happened.
    The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that changes in sentencing would be necessary for CA to continue to meet the federal court’s limit on overcrowding.

    We are for the present stuck with sentencing considerations more dependent on the “seriousness” of the offense than on an assessment of the person (which of course would include their history and offense). This is from justice systems having their past roots in the community’s intervention to prevent blood feuds from making community life chaotic.
    The competing approach is to use confinement only when other measures of non-incarceration programs, services, and supervision do not seem sufficiently likely to reduce the hazard a person poses. Mixing the two approaches doesn’t seem to be working well. To put it briefly, “retribution and rehabilitation do not work well together,” nor do prevention and punishment.

    A component of offenses which is little attended to is the role of non-jail/prison community resources. Now, with the enthusiasm about reducing “recidivism” (the commission of offenses by previously incarcerated people), there are moves towards increasing community programs. I am reaching beyond that here: Strengthening community services and programs can lead to a reduction in first offenses, not just repeat ones, and that’s a goal worth pursuing.
    But providing the the public services necessary for that effect runs into the dual barriers of high rate of poverty which prevents people from purchasing the services they need, and our tax-phobic political culture.

    As for incentives to prisoners: A chance to leave prison on parole will indeed incentivize people to participate in programs, especially if a good range of good programs will be available to all. It will also incentivize people to watch their own behaivor in prison, a result helpful to all prisoners and staff.
    What’s the purpose of limiting it to only those whose offenses are classified as “nonviolent?” Wouldn’t others (and therefore the public) benefit from using that incentive with that population as well?

  2. Minerva Moser says:

    Regarding the classifications of “nonviolent” and “violent” – the general public doesn’t see how those classifications are often assigned outside of their practical definitions. The prisoner(s) suffer for it; the prison industrial complex profits. The mere will of the people has little chance of stopping or reversing the power and influence of said prison industrial complex.

    • Dear Minerva Moser, I read your comment and would appreciate it very much if you would join a page I recently created in favor of Prop 57. It is designed to inform and educate people on the proposition as there has been a lot of opposition creating fear in the general public at this time. And you are so very right! Sites that are opposed to Prop 57 have attacked me with accusation of approving rape by intoxication, rape of an unconscious person, human trafficking involving sex act with minors, drive-by shooting, assault with a deadly weapon, taking a hostage, domestic violence involving trauma, possession of a bomb or weapon of mass destruction, hate crime causing physical injury, arson causing great bodily injury, discharging a firearm on school grounds, corporal injury to a child, and false imprisonment of an elderly person…misleading people definitely and yet even I have had to spend many hours researching California’s penal codes. I feel for the average person who simply wants an honest answer to violent versus nonviolent crimes!
      I’m not a savvy Facebook person or blogger but would surely appreciate any constructive criticism and dialog you could share with the group as well.

      to your health,

      Sherry Vincent