If California has an industry, it’s prisons, the result of public policies, intensive lobbying by the powerful prison guard union, private prison industries, and law-and-order Republicans. And, of course, the war of drugs and its disproportionate incarceration of people of color.
The net result between 1982 and 2000 was a five-fold increase in California prison inmates, demanding a building surge of 23 new state prisons, each costing between $280 million to $350 million.
But even with the surge in construction, the flood of new inmates continued, outpacing the flurry of new construction.
The inevitable happened, as Newsweek noted in a 22 March 2015 report:
Imagine a society where convicts were sentenced to death by untreated renal failure or denial of chemotherapy. Modern Americans would surely consider such a place barbaric and cruel.
Yet in the 1990s and 2000s, California essentially meted out such punishments, knowingly shoveling unprecedented numbers of convicts into overcrowded, under-equipped prisons to serve long, hopeless sentences.
In 2006, “a preventable or possibly preventable death occurred” somewhere in California’s prison system “once every five to six days,” the U.S. Supreme Court observed in the 2011 case of Brown v. Plata. It’s hard to find medical staff even for functional prisons; vacancies in the California system ranged from 20 percent for doctors to 44 percent for X-ray technicians.
But an excess of inmates, more than a lack of doctors, caused the state’s prison health care crisis. Built to house roughly 80,000 people, California’s prisons were stuffed with twice that many residents, prompting Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency.
With every cell full, prison officials had packed gymnasiums with double and triple bunks. In one such makeshift dormitory, a prisoner was beaten to death. No one on the prison staff noticed for several hours.
When the federal courts intervened, the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown finally acted, as Reuters reported:
In 2012, under court order to reduce prison overcrowding, California announced an ambitious criminal justice reform plan that promised not only to meet the court mandate but also to improve criminal sentencing and “save billions of dollars.”
Now, three years after implementing the changes, California has reduced its prison population by some 30,000 inmates, and the state is in the vanguard of a prison reform movement spreading across the country, with support from both the right and the left.
California’s reforms are rooted in a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which found that the state’s overcrowded prisons violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
At the time, 20,000 inmates were sleeping on makeshift triple bunk beds set up in prison gymnasiums and day rooms. The court ordered California to reduce crowding from 200 percent of capacity to a more manageable 137.5 percent.
In May, 2011, the day after the Supreme Court ordered an end to California prison overcrowding, hysteria reigned, as the Los Angeles Times reported:
“Citizens will pay a real price as crime victims, as thousands of convicted felons will be on the streets with minimal supervision,” Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a statement. “Many of these ‘early release’ prisoners will commit crimes which would never have occurred had they remained in custody.”
“It’s an undue burden …to deal with the state’s problems,’‘ said Jerry Gutierrez, chief deputy of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
Republican lawmakers said they would continue to fight the governor’s plan and its reliance on tax increases. Democrats “are looking for any excuse they can to try to have more taxes,” said the leader of the state Senate’s GOP minority, Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga.
Bu were those fears justified?
Not according to a new research report from three academics who examined crime statistics before and after the massive California prison releases.
From Indiana University:
A paper published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy addresses one of the most important crime policy questions in America: Can prison populations be reduced without endangering the public?
That question was examined by researchers who tested the impact on public safety of California’s dramatic efforts to comply with court-mandated targets to reduce prison overcrowding
The results showed that California’s Realignment Act, passed in 2011, had no effect on aggregate violent or property crime rates in 2012, 2013 or 2014. When crime types were disaggregated, a moderately large, statistically significant association between realignment and auto theft rates was observed in 2012. By 2014, however, this effect had decayed, and auto theft rates returned to pre-realignment levels.
The paper, Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous? The Effect of California’s Realignment Act on Public Safety [$15 read-only, $38 to read and print — esnl],” was authored by Jody Sundt, associate dean and associate professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; Emily Salisbury, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Mark Harmon, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice in the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.
There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading