Our Ebbing Urge to Incarcerate

California seems to be finding a way out of its prison-overcrowding problems. Have we decided that locking up so many people isn't the best way to keep the public safe?

Matt Cate
Matt Cate
Most informed public officials know that America leads the world in the number of people it incarcerates, but they may not know by just how much. In fact, our rate of imprisonment, 500 per 100,000 residents, is five times as great as that of comparable countries. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but the 2.3 million people it has behind bars account for nearly a quarter of all the people imprisoned in the world.

Few people have more insight into the incarceration crisis than Matt Cate. He spent the last nine years focusing on the nation's largest prison system, the California Department of Corrections. Cate was a state prosecutor handling public-corruption cases involving public officials, corrections officers and cops when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made him inspector general of California. In that role, Cate focused on waste and corruption in the state prison system. Then Schwarzenegger appointed him secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Schwarzenegger's successor, Jerry Brown, kept Cate in that role, and when Cate left that job last November he was the last Schwarzenegger appointee still on the cabinet.

The stricter sentencing laws California enacted during the 1990s resulting in soaring rates of incarceration, so the state began building more prisons. By the 2000s there was no money to build more prisons, and eventually the system reached 200 percent of its design capacity. The state's prison population peaked at 173,000 in 2006. Two prisoners were occupying cells designed for one. Prison health care suffered, and infrastructure such as prison wastewater systems became overburdened. California's prisons became very dangerous places for people to live and work. Massive incarceration produces what Cate calls a "factory" of bad criminal-justice outcomes despite the massive spending of taxpayer money.

Eventually the federal courts ordered California to reduce its state prison population by about 33,000 prisoners and to improve inmate health care. Gov. Brown's response has been a program called "realignment," whose aim was to make the most effective use of the state prisons' 110,000 beds. Under the plan, which Cate helped craft with deep involvement from counties and other stakeholders, counties were given far more responsibility for deciding which prisoners to send to the state system and which to house in county jails. The state shifted a billion dollars to the counties, and sheriffs are building new jails. Under realignment, state prison is for the most serious crimes, and low-level felons are sent to county jails with the sheriffs empowered to make release decisions.

The results so far have been dramatic. The state has reduced its prison population from 200 percent of design capacity to 146 percent, and the governor has asked the courts to end their oversight of the prisons. Cate agrees that it's time for that oversight to end. The right offenders have been realigned and a new round of inmate releases would be very difficult, he says. What about the counties, which under the realignment process were handed vast new costs and risks? If they're unhappy, it's clear they don't blame Matt Cate: His new job is as executive director of the California State Association of Counties.

We may have reached a tipping point on incarceration in America. The Pew Center on the States reported that as of January 2010 the country had experienced the first year-to-year decline in its state-prison population in 38 years. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in 2011 the nation's prison population again declined, with California reporting the largest decrease, down more than 15,000; in all; 26 states experienced declines in the number of people held in their prisons.

Maybe other public officials are beginning to see what Matt Cate sees: There are far better ways than mass incarceration for the taxpayers to get the best return on the money they spend on public safety.