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California radically revamping prison system

California is at the forefront of a national movement to reduce mass incarceration and its adverse effects on families, communities and the public purse. After decades of being tough on crime, the state is shifting toward a philosophy that emphasizes crime prevention and criminal rehabilitation. It’s a major change for California in every way — financially, socially and morally.

If the state gets it right, then California could transform criminal justice policy for the entire country.

We’re only at the very beginning of this enormous change, which began because of forces outside of California’s control. In August 2009, a panel of three federal judges declared California’s prison overcrowding problem to be so severe that it was providing prisoners with an unconstitutional standard of health care. The court procedures that followed forced California to reduce the enormous number of prisoners held in the state prison system.

State leaders and California voters took on the challenge thoughtfully. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that shifted responsibility for many nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual offenders to county jail and probation systems. This big change, commonly called realignment, has successfully reduced the number of state prisoners by more than 30,000 inmates. It allowed California to meet the federal court mandate, and the early data show that it’s been successful at protecting the public safety. Most studies don’t show an increase in state crime because of realignment.

Meanwhile, there’s been a crucial shift in how the public thinks about crime and justice.

California has long been known as a “tough on crime” state, thanks to initiatives such as the 1994 “three strikes” sentencing law and even more sentencing enhancement laws in the late 1990s.

Despite the tough punishments, the state wasn’t reaping good returns.

We had one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation — a 2014 report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showed that more than half of inmates returned to prison within three years of release. California also had some of the nation’s highest prison costs. The price tag for housing, feeding and caring for an inmate in California is nearly $64,000 per year.

Voters showed that they were ready for a change in November 2014 by passing Proposition 47. This initiative reclassified some drug and property crimes as misdemeanors and allowed people who were serving felony sentences for these crimes to petition for resentencing.

“I’m a little surprised at how much the tenor of things has changed, but it’s clear that the public’s mood has shifted,” said Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen. “I hear it when I go to community meetings and speak to citizen groups all the time. It’s clear that the public is saying, we need prisons, but let’s try a little more rehabilitation, drug treatment, mental health treatment. The amount of money we’ve spent on prisons has tripled in the last few decades, and people realize that there are limits to what we can spend.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of these changes.

California’s overall incarceration rate has dropped to levels that we haven’t seen since the early 1990s. According to California Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Scott Kernan, there are about 127,000 inmates in the state prison system. The state held 173,000 people in custody in 2006.

The decrease in what Kernan calls “the pure density of the population” has given prison officials breathing room to begin building the rehabilitation programs that prisoners want, and the health care infrastructure that they need. Kernan said the state’s 35 prisons have a long way to go, but there’s been definite progress. They’ve established substance-abuse treatment, for example, at nearly every institution, and are working to do the same with academic programs. Kernan sees building up the state prison system’s rehabilitation capabilities as a major component of his job right now.

“I hope the people of California understand that just locking people away and not giving them any incentive to rehabilitate themselves is not good public safety,” Kernan said.

Kernan’s thinking reflects a major shift in criminal justice leadership, from the federal government all the way down to California’s counties.

We can no longer afford to lock up large segments of our population for extended periods of time.

California has to reduce its dependence on incarceration and make sure that former prisoners get what it takes to be law-abiding members of society. It will require the state to add new re-entry opportunities, rehabilitation programs and mental health capabilities. It will require statewide consistency in the quality of those programs. It will require excellent oversight — for programs as well as prisoners.

Law enforcement officials and community leaders alike know that this may be the hardest task of all.

“When someone’s in custody without any services, that is not a situation that’s going to get them ready to re-enter society safely,” said Mary Butler, president-elect of Chief Probation Officers of California. “What we’ve really learned is that we have to develop programs that allow people to start to change their way of thinking about crime and their life, so that they can make the changes that will let them become a productive member of society.”

We didn’t get here overnight, and we won’t shift our state criminal justice system overnight, either.

Implementing a safer, more cost-effective system is a project that will take the entire state many years. But the direction that we have to take is clear.

Brown has taken another step toward this enormous project with a proposed November ballot measure. It would allow nonviolent felons who have earned enough credits through good behavior and rehabilitative achievement to spend less time in prison. When and if the measure makes its way through court challenges to the ballot, it could be a way to encourage offenders to change their behavior. That could be a powerful way to reduce recidivism.

The key will be ensuring that offenders get the right kind of rehabilitation — and the support they need to avoid future criminal behavior.

That’s a task for the millions of Californians who’ve never been to prison.

Here’s the tough news for California’s voters: The criminal justice reforms we have already begun have reduced the prison population, thereby preventing lots of additional prison spending by the state. But they may not result in major cost savings — at least not right away.

“I think there’s an unreasonable expectation of budget reductions,” Kernan said. “We haven’t closed a prison, and there are other things that have imposed on our budget.”

Some of those other things — improved medical care, for example — were court-ordered. Some of them — such as pay raises for non-peace officers (Corrections Department employees who are not sworn law enforcement officers) — are more controversial. And some of them — like improvements in mental health care — will improve public safety in the long run.

If the state chooses to take rehabilitation seriously, adding quality programs inside and outside of prison walls, it will be another long-term expense that eats up some of the state’s reduced-population savings.

“We need to shift money from the criminal justice system and put it into the mental health system, especially in poor communities,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. “It’s not politically popular to talk about how we build up a mental health care infrastructure. But there’s a lot of intersection between this issue and the criminal justice system.”

But there’s good news, too.

California’s decision to pursue a punitive criminal justice policy for decades carried more than just excessive financial costs. It carried huge social costs for families and communities. It cost the state tremendously in terms of human capital, because even brief stints in prison can render the formerly incarcerated ineligible for homes, jobs and educational opportunities.

That’s a cycle that has led to more crime, more recidivism and more generational poverty.

Rethinking California’s criminal justice system means that the state has the chance to disrupt these vicious cycles.

“We need to look at certain realities,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. “We have a three-judge panel who’s told us that there’s a limit to the number of people we can have in California prisons. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of prison building. So what we have to own as leaders is how we can be more strategic, in everything from how we prosecute cases to what kinds of evidence-based rehabilitation we use. It takes a lot to reduce recidivism, especially with people who may not have hopefulness after experiencing extreme poverty.”

For O’Malley, that’s meant everything from working on a research project to learn what stops someone from getting involved in a job-training program to meeting informally with the public defender every week, so as to minimize the use of court time for lower-level petitions.

“There are a lot of steps to reducing recidivism and, right now, it’s our job as leaders to maximize our efforts there,” O’Malley said.

The more successful California gets at reducing recidivism, the less it will cost us — socially, morally and, eventually, financially.


California Criminal Justice, by the numbers



Average cost to house, clothe, feed and provide medical care for each prison inmate


54 percent

California’s recidivism rate (as defined as a felony conviction within three years of leaving state prison)


127, 313*

Number of prisoners incarcerated in the state prison system in 2016 (includes inmates of out-of-state contract prisons)



Number of prisoners incarcerated in the state prison system in 2011 (includes inmates of out-of-state contract prisons)


$1.8 billion

What California spends on medical care for prisoners in fiscal year 2016-17


$3.6 billion

What California spent on its prison system in 1994, the year the “three strikes” sentencing law was passed


$880 million

What California spent on medical care for prisoners in 2009, the year a federal judicial panel declared the state prison health care system was providing an unconstitutional level of care


$10.6 billion

What California will spend on its prison system this year


Sources: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; California Department of Finance.


*As of March 2, 2016

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