Reasonable Expectations for California’s Prison Population Reduction

California’s game-changing prison reform is now underway. Tens of thousands of lower-level offenders are being transferred from state prisons to county jails and probation, relieving prison overcrowding and freeing resources for rehabilitation. State Attorney General Kamala Harris, who spoke at Stanford Law School yesterday, made the sage point that somewhere in the state at some point in the future, one of these offenders will commit a murder, and everyone who supports reform should be ready for that moment. Opponents will seize on the crime to pronounce the program a failure, despite the fact that the current system breeds violent crime inside and outside the walls.

As I wrote about last year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Alito argued that the possibility of an immediate spike in crime rates was sufficient reason to allow California’s prison overcrowding to continue. But that short-term view adopts the wrong analytic frame. Putting toothpaste back into a tube is always a mess, and any problems that occur under the new policy will reflect in part the legacy of the failed policies that preceded it.

The real question is whether in the long-term a policy of not putting many low-level offenders into prison will keep the public safer and better protect the human rights of incarcerated people (they have them, you know). The environment inside California prisons has to be seen (and smelled) to be believed. As a one-time prison inspector, I’ve seen it, and it’s brutalizing in the old sense of the word. The non-criminal population of California will be a beneficiary as fewer offenders return to society damaged, enraged, sickened and unemployable due to their experiences in our inhumane and overcrowded prisons.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Reasonable Expectations for California’s Prison Population Reduction”

  1. If one were to devise a system for taking someone with criminal tendencies and making them profoundly worse, you probably couldn’t do much better than today’s prison system.

  2. Yes, because magically those tens of thousands of prisoners will cost the counties nothing whatsoever to house or monitor on probation. The legislature did something like that last session, loudly proclaiming how much money they were saving taxpayers.

    Our county property taxes are going up, and our services for the law abiding are going down, because the county jail system now need to deal with a large influx of new prisoners.

    And bluntly, until society changes it’s attitudes, returned felons ARE largely unemployable.

    In many places your housing choices are severely limited by having a conviction on your record, or while you’re on probation because ‘gittuffoncrime!’ included a wide range of civil barriers to released prisoners.

    Here in southern Arizona most large apartment complexes and many smaller landlords require a criminal background check as well as a credit report to sign a lease agreement; you come up with convictions on your record, you can’t live there.

    Many jobs now require the same, even for positions that do not have anything to do with handling money.

    This gurantees that the returning felon is marginalized. THIS is where the real reform has to take place.

  3. Amen to all of these. And I hope we stop putting so many people in jail to begin with. What we ought to do is put massively more resources into early education and K-12, so that schools would have the resources to *prevent* people from growing up in unhealthy environments.

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