Governor Brown has proposed a ballot measure—the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act—that could significantly alter sentencing in California. If it qualifies for the ballot—which seems likely—and is approved by voters in November, the measure would allow non-violent felons who have earned enough credits for good behavior to spend less time in state prison. It would also shift the power to determine whether juveniles should be tried as adults from prosecutors to judges. The measure follows the path of decreased reliance on incarceration that California has been on since 2009.
Motivated primarily by a federal court’s 2009 mandate to improve health care and reduce overcrowding in the state’s prison system, California has implemented a number of measures that have considerably reduced the prison population. Since reaching a historic high in 2006, the prison population has dropped by 45,000, a decrease of about 26 percent, and the state’s overall incarceration rate is down to levels not seen since the early 1990s.
Although a number of policies have contributed to this decline, it is largely attributable to two recent major reforms: the 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act, or AB 109, which shifted responsibility for many non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenders to county jail and probation systems; and Proposition 47, which reclassified some drug and property felonies as misdemeanors. Since January 2015, two months after voters approved Prop 47, the prison population has remained below the court-mandated target. That is good news for the state. However, the institutional population is only about 1.1 percent, or 900 inmates, below the target. Given this slim margin—and given the fact that the state still needs to show that it is providing adequate health care—the pressure is still on.
Californians appear to be supportive of lessening penalties for crime and downsizing state prisons. Recent criminal justice initiatives, such as Proposition 36 in 2012 (which revised California’s three-strikes law) and Proposition 47 in 2014, passed by rather wide margins—close to 70 percent and around 60 percent respectively.
Voters may well be inclined to see reductions in spending on prisons, and with good reason. California’s corrections budget continues to grow, with the governor requesting $10.6 billion from the General Fund for 2016–17—a historic high. This amount does not include more than $1 billion annually that the state transfers to counties to implement realignment. For 2016–17, the state is projecting the cost of the prison system to be almost $70,000 per prisoner. A significant reduction in the prison population could finally allow the state to stop the use of out-of-state contract beds and possibly close a state prison. These actions could potentially lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings. Without further reductions in the prison population, it will be difficult for the state to stop using contract beds and remain below the court-ordered population cap.
Finally, it should be noted that, unlike realignment and Propositions 36 and 47, which implemented changes based on the kind of offenses committed, this measure focuses mainly on the behavior of the offenders. After they earn enough credits for good behavior and achievements in education and rehabilitation, non-violent prison inmates can be paroled and released early. If this incentive is accompanied by effective educational and rehabilitative programs, it could reduce recidivism. More broadly, this measure, combined with the redirection of spending toward cost-effective crime preventive strategies, could help California use its corrections resources more wisely.
Chart source (BOTTOM): California Department of Finance.