Will Budget Deficits Result in Much-Needed Prison Reform?

With deficits mounting and a court order requiring the end of prison over-crowding, the California Assembly has passed a scaled-back version of a Senate prison reform plan that would reduce the state's bloated prison population by 27,000 and save $1 billion.  However, the plan falls short of the needed $1.2 billion in cuts mandated by lawmakers' state budget agreement and fails to fully comply with a court order that California reduce its prison population by 43,000 inmates because of overcrowding and unconstitutionally-low levels of prisoner services.  

Fixing a Failed Prison Policy:  California houses over 154,000 inmates in 33 facilities that are designed to hold 84,000, just over half of the current prison population.  California spends $49,000 per inmate per year, one of the highest levels in the country, but has one of the worst recidivism rates at 70%.  Aside from being poor public policy, a leading concern in the current prison reform debate is that the state's costly and ineffective criminal justice system is siphoning off funds from vital programs like public education.  Adding to the mounting prison costs is a reactionary three-strikes and you're out policy that voters passed in 1994.

The Assembly plan would reduce the number of prisoners under parole supervisions following their prison terms by focusing on the most serious and violent crimes, raise the threshold for what crimes are considered felonies, and give inmates the chance to reduce sentences by completing educational or rehabilitation courses.  A major sticking point between the Assembly and Senate is the Senate's inclusion of a commission to review sentencing guidelines and make changes that would be implemented unless lawmakers acted to stop them, a process that supporters say has worked in other states.  And in fact, many states, including conservative ones, have recently controlled corrections costs by instituting reforms to improve community corrections and reinvest prison spending on programs that reduce recidivism.

Further Recommendations by Advocates: In related news, the corrections department announced it would close the state's largest youth prison and send offenders to local facilities.  This is a key goal for a coalition of prison reform advocates, known as the People's Budget Fix, who want to close all 6 youth facilities, diverting half of the budget for these facilities to counties to serve youth offenders and to a state enforcement office to ensure best practices.  Advocates say these steps could save $200 million annually and better serve the public and youth offenders.  Other recommendations made by the advocacy coalition include:

  • Converting more petty offenses to misdemeanors, which would cut prison spending by $700 million annually,
  • Localizing the response to simple drug possession and other low-level drug crimes, and handling drug infractions through community service, treatment, or probation, which would save the state $1 billion annually,
  • Replacing the death penalty with permanent imprisonment, which would save $1 billion over five years, and
  • Reforming the outmoded Three Strikes law to apply only to violent offenses, which would achieve five year savings of $5 billion.

People's Budget Fix - Recommendations for Prison Reform
Pew Center on the States - Public Safety Performance
Council of State Governments Justice Center - Justice Reinvestment Project
Center for Community Corrections