California’s Strange, Tragic Embrace of Prisons

California has for decades operated a large number of overcrowded prisons, in which conditions were recently described by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy as incompatible with the concept of human dignity and having no place in civilized society. If that were not sufficient cause for reform, the fiscal strain imposed by the state’s correctional system is now nearly $9 billion a year. Yet a generation of California elected officials — unlike their brethren in left-wing bastions such as South Carolina, Texas, South Dakota and Mississippi — have done nothing to reduce the size of the state’s prison population.

A range of lawsuits filed over many years (and fought by successive governors) recently culminated in the federal government forcing the state to move some prisoners to local jails. But Governor Jerry Brown is defying federal pressure to fully comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to reduce overcrowding to a still problematic 137% of capacity.

Even modest reforms to criminal sentencing get little love from elected officials in this Democratic Party-dominated state. Hope for change surged briefly last year when a bill to convert simple drug possession from a felony to a “wobbler” (a crime that could, depending on circumstances, be treated as either a felony or a misdemeanor) actually passed the state legislature after many similar prior bills had failed.

But Brown promptly vetoed it. At the time, he stated that a broad review of all sentencing was commencing, and that would be the vehicle to revamp the criminal justice system more broadly, including sentencing policy.

Almost a year later, Brown has shown no signs of honoring that commitment. Instead he has proposed another half billion dollars in new spending to build more jails and prisons.

Why so many red states have run rings about putatively progressive California in the pursuit of de-incarceration is a mystery that political scientists may one day unravel. In the meantime, a proposition to convert a significant number of felonies to misdemeanor status and to allow prisoners to retroactively appeal their sentences will be on the California ballot this November. The initiative, like the lawsuits before it, is a predictable consequence of elected officials repeatedly proving themselves unwilling to proactively address a serious social problem.

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.