In 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled that the treatment of the California prison population violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” and ordered the state to reduce prison overcrowding. But even with liberal democrats running the state, it took court orders and direct referendums to solve the problem. Why? Part of the blame lies in the close connection between the party and organized labor.
California’s three-strike law requires certain repeat offenders to receive harsh sentences, regardless of whether or not a judge finds the sentence justified. The bill, passed in 1994, was championed by Democrats looking for a way to prove they were tough on crime. Law-and-order Republicans were only too willing to participate in supporting hard-line penal mandates.
The three strikes law is one reason state prisons had doubled their capacity by 2006. As California’s prison population increased, conditions deteriorated rapidly, resulting in gyms filled with cots, prisoners sleeping on stairwells, and an almost complete lack of mental health services.
When a referendum to lift three strikes came up in 2004, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA) launched a campaign to thwart the move. As expected, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and the GOP lawmakers have spoken out against the proposal – as has current Governor Jerry Brown (D), who was Oakland Mayor at the time and was preparing to run for the Attorney General.
Brown’s refusal to firmly address the prison debacle has a lot to do with his union relations: when he ran for governor in 2010, the CCPOA contributed more than $ 2 million to his campaign. After the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce the number of inmates in prison, it signed the Public Safety Realignment Act, a law that requires that lower-level violent and other offenders be released to county jails. Such prisons are indeed more suitable places than state prisons for less dangerous inmates, and many counties have touted their successes with parole. But predictably, the county prisons have increased 16 percent since 2011, and county officials have been trying to figure out how to meet the needs of a new group of long-term inmates. In addition, thousands of pre-trial inmates had to be released to make room in the prisons for the convicted criminals. The problem of overcrowding was not resolved – it was only being moved from state prisons to district prisons.
In 2013, Brown proclaimed that the “California prison emergency is over” and continued pledging financial support to county prisons as they work to cope with the influx of new inmates. But the state’s prisons are still about 140 percent full, and after five years of decline, the number of California prisons increased in 2013. One reason the state is finding it so difficult to reduce its prison number is that the Three Strikes Act imposes severe penalties on many drug offenders.
“Drug policy is the main driver of mass imprisonment in California and across the country,” said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. She points to the massive increase in the number of prison inmates at the federal and state levels after the ramp-up of the drug war in the 1980s. California prisons alone have more than 11,000 inmates jailed for drug offenses, accounting for nearly 9 percent of total prison inmates. More than half of them were sentenced under the three strikes law.
Even so, Brown has resisted the reform. In late 2013, he vetoed laws that changed the state’s judgment structure by allowing prosecutors to charge certain drug crimes as offenses rather than criminal offenses. But as a reprimand to their governor, California voters voted 17 points ahead of a referendum entitled Proposition 47 in November. Among other things, the initiative automatically downgrades most drug possession charges from crime to misdemeanor.
The success of Prop. 47 is a victory for California drug policy reform. But until lawmakers push for a more thorough and sustained dismantling of the draconian condemnation guidelines, America’s incarceration problem will not go away.
Zach Weissmueller (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a producer on Reason TV. To see a video version of this story, go here or see below.