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CA Could Reduce Its Prison Population by 30,000, Says Report

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

A new report outlines strategies the state of California could employ that would reduce its prison and jail populations by 30,000 and save approximately $1.5 billion in prison spending.

In 2016, there were over 200,000 people were locked in California’s prisons and jails. According to the report, lowering the incarcerated population by 30,000—by reducing the length of prison time for the majority of inmates by 20 percent—would make it possible for the state to close five prisons.

The report, by the non-profit Californians for Safety and Justice, suggests that money saved could be invested in preventative community programs and victims’ services.

One-and-a-half billion dollars could go a long way toward expanding treatment for people with severe mental health challenges and addiction, increasing the use of diversion, and opening up housing for chronically homeless individuals who cycle in and out of lockup, according to the report. The money could also be used to support survivors of crime by opening new trauma recovery centers and facilitating restorative justice programs. Additionally, the money could go toward second chances for the formerly incarcerated who have reentered their communities. This goal, which would also reduce recidivism, could be accomplished via employment programs for people with convictions and/or “clean slate” assistance programs that would break down barriers for people with convictions, and help them achieve stability, according to the report.

A December report from the Brennan Center for Justice came to a similar conclusion as the Californians for Safety and Justice report. It estimated that 39 percent (576,000) of the US prison population was behind bars “with little public safety rationale.” According to the report, these individuals could be sentenced to shorter prison terms, or to an alternative to incarceration “with little impact on public safety.” Releasing nearly 40 percent of the national prison population would save the US nearly $20 billion each year, according to the Brennan Center. (Read the report for more information on how the Brennan Center researchers weighed crimes and other factors to come to these numbers.)

This deincarceration goal is entirely achievable, according to Todd Clear, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University, and James Austin, a nationally respected corrections expert and President of the JFA Institute. (In 2012, Austin presented a report to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors with a detailed plan to lower the county’s jail population enough to shut down the crumbling Men’s Central Jail.)

Clear and Austin discussed the issue in a massive Arizona State University report focused on criminal justice reform that spanned 57 chapters written by 120 academic experts.

In their chapter, Clear and Austin point to New Jersey and New York, which have both reduced their prison populations by one-third since 1999, and California which has reduced its number of prisoners by one-fourth since 2006. These states, the experts wrote, show that “large—meaningful—reductions in the number of people in prison can be accomplished without endangering the public.”

In addition to the 25 percent reduction in the population of state prisoners, California experienced an average drop of 10 percent among county jail populations, a 64 percent reduction in the number of people under state supervision, and a 22 percent drop in the number of felonies filed in courts each year. The state has become a model for criminal justice reform over the last few years through recent state laws like Propositions 36, 47, and 57 as well as Public Safety Realignment, and myriad other legislative reforms.

In 2011, Realignment (AB 109) shifted responsibility for certain low-level offenders away from California’s state prison system to the states’ 58 counties.

Prop. 36, passed in 2012, reformed the state’s Three Strikes law, narrowing the offenses that could qualify as a third strike (which could send people away for 25-to-life) to serious or violent felonies.

In 2014, Prop. 47 downgraded six low-level felonies to misdemeanors. Savings achieved by the reform is allocated for mental health and drug rehab programs for criminal justice system-involved people, efforts to reduce truancy and help at-risk students, and for victims services. (Californians for Safety and Justice was one of the groups behind this legislation.)

Prop. 57, once fully implemented, will increase parole eligibility for non-violent offenders who have completed the base sentence for their primary offense, and boosts access to early release “good time” credits. Prop. 57 also takes the power to transfer kids to adult court out of the hands of prosecutors and gives the control back to judges.

Despite these welcome reforms, there is still much work to be done to address major criminal justice system flaws, particularly with regard to the state’s incarceration rate and prison spending, according to Californians for Safety and Justice.

The report recommends integrating mental health services and crisis intervention in emergency response practices. “Police are frequently the sole first responders called to handle complex social challenges that they alone are ill-equipped to resolve,” the report states. “Emergency services can be expanded to provide a first response alternative to law enforcement through 911 dispatch that is mobile, accessible 24/7 and staffed by first responders trained in mental health and crisis intervention who can intervene and de-escalate situations without making an arrest.” According to the report, on any given day, there are approximately 5,000 individuals held in areas of jails designated for people with mental health problems. Many of these individuals could be better served by treatment services within their communities, the report says.

Californians for Safety and Justice also recommends expanding pre-booking diversion options, like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), through which officers send people with mental health or substance abuse issues who have committed low-level crimes to community-based services, rather than arrest them.

The report also recommends setting shorter probation terms, when appropriate. Last year, there were more than 190,000 people serving an average of three years of probation for felony convictions. Research shows, however, that people are more likely to recidivate in the first few months after their release from prison. Moreover, the public safety benefits of probation decrease after the 15-month mark, according to the report. Thus, “frontloading resources within the first six months to a year of supervision and shortening sentence lengths overall will promote positive safety outcomes,” the report states. Probation departments should also implement graduated responses to probation violations, so that technical violations like failing to pay fees or missing probation appointments do not necessarily mean a return to prison.

The report also recommends doing away with mandatory sentencing enhancements, and giving judges more discretion to decide sentence-length. Sentencing enhancements add time to sentences beyond the base term, for things like prior convictions, using a firearm, shooting from a car, gang affiliation, and more. These enhancements can turn a sentence of a few years into one of multiple decades, and disproportionately affect poor and minority people.

According to the report, approximately 80% of California prisoners are serving time that includes a mandatory enhancement.

“One study found that incarceration for any longer than 20 months has minimal to no effect on reducing recidivism upon release,” the report says. “Another study found that the ideal sentence length to ensure accountability and minimize recidivism for serious crimes such as robbery and burglary was about 14 months: any longer actually increased the likelihood the person would return to committing crimes upon release.”

The report also recommends granting parole to more low-risk prisoners. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data shows that nearly half of the state’s prison population (48 percent or 63,000 individuals) have a low risk of reoffending. The report recommends the state work to evaluate these low-risk inmates for possible earlier release. “If only 10% of the individuals currently assessed as low-risk were evaluated and released, that would reduce California’s
prison population by about 6,300,” the report states. In addition, inmates with indeterminate sentences should have the opportunity for earlier parole consideration based on completion of rehabilitative programs and education, the report says.

“There has never been a more important time to achieve this vision,” the report concludes. “As long as the state continues to overspend on prisons, the unresolved drivers of crime will continue to plague vulnerable communities. Concrete and bold steps must be taken over the next five years to build out new safety priorities rooted in community health and wellbeing. ”

19 Comments

  • May as well release them. Release all of them. California has voted and they do not want law and order. Police are clocking in and clocking out with little thought as to fighting crime and who can blame them?
    “Progressives” are raising taxes and reducing any sort of criminal punishment. The burden of funding this state is squarely on those law abiding citizens who actually make legal money and, sadly, they are leaving. Who will be left to pay for this sorry excuse of a state?
    Maybe Jerry and his merry band of idiots can find a way to tax illegal income.

  • So you and Fluffy think the state has become a “model for criminal justice reform” with the “welcome reforms” of Props 36, 47 and 57? Please tell that to the thousands of additional victims who have suffered at the hands of the “low level” predators who are now out wondering the streets looking for victims.

    Funny how the left hides behind saving a buck when it serves their purposes. In my book, government’s number one priority is to keep the public safe, so let’s not start pinching pennies on the back of public safety.

  • Witness la basically writes two types of stories. The first kind calls for some kind of government (tax funded) program or agency (like this story). The second kind is a story on how the government program or agency has failed through corruption or mismanagement. No matter how many times Witness La reports on the second kind of story it will always call for the first. Not exactly “self aware” LA.

  • The Democratic party in California has gone into overdrive and morphed into the party of “Big Government”, “we the elected officials know what’s best for the masses”, tax, tax and more tax, socialism and no law but disorder. Sacramento is like a free for all for all the social activist, crackpots, special interest groups and folks who got sand kicked in their face to get back at the bullies who wronged them as a kids.

  • Jesus, I guess this touched a nerve with our fellow law enforcement. Do not worry, gentlemen, your job, with that great union you have, is secure. For a group that whines about big government (ironic given they are government employees), I would have thought a reduction in government would be welcome.

    Gone,”Police are clocking in and clocking out with little thought as to fighting crime and who can blame them?” I can. Get another job if you are so unhappy. Is it really too much to ask to do your job? If you do not like it, move on. Walmart is hiring security guards. Can you imagine the kid at Burger King, saying he does not feel like flipping burgers? Thank your union, and stop whining about the governement, as you are a government employee. And, stop complaining about unions, since you have a strong one that keeps your job and salary safe, even when you shoot unarmed black kids.

    Conspiracy, yes, you elected officials who think they know best. Isn’t that the truth, almost by definition. Perhaps you should consider relocating to Alabamy, where they love Trump, believe in law and order and think nothing about 30 year-olds fingering 14 year-olds. Oh, forget that, you can do that with the cadets if you’re LAPD. Sorry.

  • CF, you just don’t get it with your bigoted view. Law and order types are about public safety and that includes you and your family being safe to go to a store without fear of some thug sticking a gun in your face in the parking lot and jacking your car. Instead you think it is all about the cops jacking you up and hauling your butt off to jail for some contrived crime. I challenge you to drive around many of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in So Cal and ask the folks living there (not the ones sitting on street corners – the ones who live in the houses and go to work every day), which they fear the most: the cops or the thugs.

    I can answer that for you, but you would not believe me. So I’ll save the key strokes….

  • Oh…CF…CF…..It must be on that time of the month again because your on one of your rambling, blah..blah..blah, recurring rants. FYI…a lot of folks are leaving the sunny state and I’m happy to admit I hope to be gone sooner than later. People like you who are so in love with the way things are running here can continue to foot the bill for all the “bad lazy worthless cops” you so routinely point out, as well the roads, gas tax, illegal immigrants, numerous oversight groups and housing for the homeless programs to name a few.

    The word sucker…dupe does comes to mind.

    Oh…and I hope to enjoy my job as a Walmart greeter in the not so distant future.

  • CF…. This may sting a bit.

    2016: 7,881 Black people mudrred. 90.1% by other black people.

    Police shot and killed 233 black people in 2016 with 16 deemed to be unarmed. Couldn’t find how many of the 16 were deemed unjustified. Granted, 1 unjustified shooting by police is too many.

    Given the statistical facts, how can you possibly view police as the biggest problem within black communities?

  • Oh, come on guys. Give CF a break. Someone who’s not equipped to do anything else should be allowed to repeat what he hears. Must suck to be CF.

  • Conspiracy, glad to know. Don’t let the proverbial door hit you in the ass on the way out of California. Let me know if you need help loading that pick-up of yours.

    Ownership, I’m not sure when I said police were the biggest problem in Black communities. There are many problems in the Black community, as there are in the white community, police are just one of them. And, whites murdered by whites are about 85%, a few percentage points lower than blacks, but I never hear you talking about white-on-white crime. Coincidence? Somehow I suspect the hood clouds your vision. And, part of the problem with determining what is justified, it that to a large degree you determine what is justified and you cannot get a DA to prosecute because they need you for the rest of their cases.

    Free Rider, a witty and thought provoking comment. Your name fits you well. Ride on your partner’s coattails.

  • CF: Finally!!!! Great post. You actually recognize there are other Core Issues in every community other than the police. Yes, police community relations need a ton of work and the LE Agencies definitely have ownership in that.

    My point though, is that if you ask the majority of young black men what the main problem in their neighborhoods are, they would say the police. In my opinion this is far from the truth. It’s the false narrative that the Al Sharptons of the world want them to believe. It lines their pockets.

    You’re on a good path, keep it up.

  • CF, cops are not a problem in any community you dimwitted child. They wouldn’t even have to stop and get out of their units except to eat or go to the bathroom if not for the calls from business owners or citizens due to the behavior of community members, many of them the type that Celeste believes deserve a second chance. In Chicago since 2014 carjackings are up 194%, and though I know you’d love it if they all looked like me the overwhelming majority don’t. Sad fact is Black crime in some major cities, adult and youth is way up and for being such a low percentage of the population this is a very serious issue. How does California deal with it, we do what we can to put more bad guys back on the street, to victimize their own people that the left cares nothing about in reality, and lessen penalties for serious crimes including those where a gun is used. This make you proud of your party and how is this in any way the fault of law enforcement? Hell, the left has created this problem and there only answer every time is some snippet from a video that gets them all riled up that might show some cop got it wrong but most times…that ain’t even the case.

    • Surefire, You’re exactly the type of angry individual who who would complain about Heaven, if you ever get there. Truthfully you do have some statistical points, however you like to pick and choose. Guys like you have a doomsday calendar, who die of heart attacks, all because of the left. Sad Sack.

  • You people don’t get it, the state of California has stopped legislating and are now running on agenda, there is a disconnect between our legislators and the tax paying public. When you have a governing agency declaring itself a sanctuary state, designating monies/taxes towards defending the illegal immigrant, then the government has disconnected from those who pay the bills. You can wax and wane about how great this state is, but in reality it’s a past tense phrase of what was, not but what will be. When criminals are “sentenced” to 180 days or less and serve less than one day in jail, then the message is crime and punishment, atleast in this state, is a joke and I pity the poor policeman who thinks that what he’s doing is nothing more than shoveling crap against the tide. Clearly you people don’t get it. Californians are fleeing at a alarming rate, and I’m not talking about the average schmo, I’m talking about the high earning tax payers who , when they leave, make a definite impact on this state’s ability to function and yes, pay the bills. Only a fool would live in a state where the criminal has more standing than the citizen and it’s just a matter of time before California will be a waste land. More taxes, less services, bad roads, more gas taxes, it’s the start of a bigger problem, when the state reaches that tipping point when the demands of government can’t keep pace with the revenue and we have a cataclysmic and systemic failure and all those who could be taxed are depleted and the rest have fled. Think about it you morons…

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