After Years of Court Orders, California's Prison Population Finally Hits Target

The state's notoriously overcrowded prisons are finally seeing some relief. But it wasn't the state that catalyzed the change -- it was the voters.
by | October 9, 2015
Several hundred inmates crowding the gymnasium at California's San Quentin prison in 2009. (AP/Eric Risberg)

It took years for California to finally meet a federal court order to make space in its chronically overcrowded prisons. The state tried shifting more prisoners to local jails and reducing prison time for those who commit only minor parole violations. But those changes didn't reduce prison populations enough to meet the judges’ order.

In the end, it was a ballot measure passed by California voters last year that eased crowding below the threshold set by federal courts in 2009.

The voter-approved initiative, called Proposition 47, led to nine straight months of decreases in the state's prison population and 7,700 fewer inmates in the system than before the public approved the changes last year, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

It's the most visible effect of the initiative to date, but criminal justice experts in California say the state is only just beginning to feel the impact of the measure.

Prop. 47 lowered the penalties for many crimes. For example, possessing small amounts of illegal drugs, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks, forging checks and stealing automobiles, firearms or farm animals, in most cases, were classified as felonies but are now misdemeanors as long as the amount involved is $950 or less.

In January, California’s prisons dropped below 137.5 percent of the prisoners they were designed to hold -- the threshold set by federal courts -- for the first time in recent memory. California’s total prison population declined by 45 percent since its peak in 2006.

County jail populations also went down. They held 10,000 fewer prisoners in the month after the proposition passed compared to the month before -- though it’s unclear whether that trend continued.

“We expected a pretty immediate effect from Proposition 47 on both the prison and jail populations," said Magnus Lofstrom, a criminal justice expert with PPIC, who added that "they are bigger than we expected, especially with the jail population."

Nearly 60 percent of voters supported the measure in last November’s election, but many law enforcement groups opposed it.

Cory Salzillo, the legislative director for the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said sheriffs worry that the lower punishments could encourage criminals.

“The impact of Prop. 47,” he said, “is you’re going to have people committing crimes and escaping accountability.”

He predicted that the dip in the number of inmates in local jails would only be temporary. As more bed space becomes available, Salzillo said, sheriffs will likely stop releasing inmates early. So prisoners may serve more of their sentences, but the jails may not become less crowded.

The sheriffs also worry that drug offenders will now be less likely to opt for drug courts, which let offenders have their drug charges dismissed if they go to treatment.

“Those people are by and large not participating anymore,” now that they no longer face a felony charge if they don’t get treatment, Salzillo said. “We’re seeing people say it’s not worth it to go to drug court because it’s only a misdemeanor.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell recently said the ballot measure contributed to an increase in crime. “Rather than being incarcerated or in treatment, [drug offenders] are on the street reoffending and thus, crime is going up,” he told reporters.

Violent crime increased 5.9 percent and property crimes increased 7.6 percent this year in the area McDonnell's agency serves, according to the sheriff's office. Cities outside of California, though, have also seen violent crimes increase in the last year. Baltimore, Milwaukee, New Orleans, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., for example, all are grappling with higher numbers of murders this year.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell (AP)

Daniel Zingale, a senior vice president for the California Endowment, a private foundation that backed Prop. 47, said there was no reliable evidence that the crime rate was going up throughout California. The San Diego County sheriff's office, for example, has seen crime rates drop so far this year, although reported crimes ticked up in recent months. The sheriff's office there cautioned it was too soon to tell whether the recent increase is a long-term trend or a brief spike.

“It sounds to me like the folks who were always opposed to Prop. 47 are trying to justify their position,” Zingale said.

He said the measure is already having a positive effect. Some 160,000 people who have already served sentences for offenses that are no longer considered felonies are having their criminal records revised, so they will be eligible for more jobs. Prisoners sentenced to long sentences under the old law served less time after the measure took effect. And Zingale said both the state and counties are saving millions of dollars in prison costs that they can use on programs like drug treatment to prevent crime.

“People who should have been released a long time ago are being released, and states and counties are saving money,” he said.

Prop. 47 was the latest of several steps that California has taken to loosen sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders and try to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. Voters weakened the state’s “three-strikes” law three years ago. Previously, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed a “realignment” plan -- in response to federal court orders -- to send more inmates to local jails instead of state prisons.

California is under immense legal pressure to reduce prison overcrowding. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that overcrowding in California’s penitentiaries violated the Eight Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment (in part because of prisoners’ problems accessing health care). The high court ordered California to reduce its prison population, which at the time stood at 140,000 inmates, to 137.5 percent of the system's designed capacity (or roughly 114,000 inmates). Lower courts set a deadline for California to meet that threshold by February 2016.

But the impetus for Prop. 47 came from outside of Sacramento, with backing from billionaires George Soros and B. Wayne Hughes, the founder of Public Storage.

Prop. 47 also specifies how the state must spend any money that it saves from lowering the prison population. It will be directed toward mental health and drug abuse treatment, anti-truancy efforts and victim services. But the money won’t come until next year, when the state can determine how much money, if any, the measure is saving California.