Tried and True Solutions for California’s Overcrowded Prisons

Tried and True Solutions for California’s Overcrowded Prisons

November 3, 2011 | Christopher Hartney, Senior Researcher, NCCD and Katherine Stanford

Last week the Supreme Court ordered California to address its overcrowded prisons problem by significantly reducing its prison population over a two-year period. The State now has to decide how to safely meet the court’s requirements. Fortunately, Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can draw from various reforms implemented by other large states like New York, Michigan, New Jersey, and Texas to reduce prison populations while improving public safety.

Last week the Supreme Court ordered California to address its overcrowded prisons problem by significantly reducing its prison population over a two-year period. The State now has to decide how to safely meet the court’s requirements. Fortunately, Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can draw from various reforms implemented by other large states like New York, Michigan, New Jersey, and Texas to reduce prison populations while improving public safety.

The court has ordered California to reduce its prison population by about 23%. The last decade saw 20% fewer prison inmates in New York and 19% in New Jersey. From 2006–09, Michigan reduced its prison population by 12%. From 2003–09, Kansas achieved a 5% drop, while Mississippi had a one-year 5% drop in 2008–09. Texas turned a projected prison population increase into a three-year reduction through 2009.

Each of these states used a combination of strategies including some of those described below. These methods typically save taxpayers money while creating better outcomes for those inside and outside the justice system, including lower rates of recidivism and fewer revocations of probation and parole. California can choose from among these and other methods to comply with the court’s order.

Allow more judicial discretion in plea bargaining. Freed from mandatory sentencing requirements, judges can examine individual cases and determine appropriate sentences, while considering alternatives to incarceration.

Increase use of community-based alternatives to incarceration, including drug treatment, day or evening reporting programs that provide structured and supervised group activities, and electronic monitoring.

Create more opportunities for early parole for nonviolent offenders, such as merit time credits for good behavior and participation in education and vocational programs.

Use data-based risk assessment tools in parole decisions. Risk assessment tools analyze an individual’s offense history, education, background, substance abuse patterns, and other factors to determine level of recidivism risk. Better decisions about who should be paroled and under what level of supervision can be made using these tools, which help create individualized approaches to rehabilitation based on what has worked with similar parolees in the past.

Reduce parole revocations through better community-based planning and services. New Jersey set up regional assessment centers that provided input to the parole board in determining whether parole violators should be allowed to continue on parole supervision.

Implement drug courts. Drug courts are essentially drug treatment programs run by the court. They involve extensive supervision, combined with drug testing and regular court appearances, as well as a reward system for compliance with program protocol.

Reform ineffective sentencing laws. Reduce or eliminate minimum mandatory sentences for minor drug crimes, increase judicial discretion in plea bargaining, and divert people convicted of minor drug charges to treatment programs.

Use resources for treatment and other programs. Effective resource allocation is a crucial factor in reduced inmate populations. Kansas passed a risk reduction initiative to provide funding for treatment programs and housing services. In Texas, a portion of money allocated for corrections was also reinvested into residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs.

Whichever options California decides to pursue, the decision must reflect the State’s commitment to public safety, as well as the importance of lowering corrections spending throughout the state. The State can choose from several safe, effective and cost-saving measures to move California’s inmate populations even below the court-ordered reductions.

For more information, see:

Judith Greene and Marc Mauer. (2010.) Downscaling Prisons: Lessons from Four States. http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/publications/inc_DownscalingPrisons2010.pdf

The Pew Center on the States. (April, 2010.) Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years. http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/report_detail.aspx?id=57653

Christopher Hartney is a Senior Researcher at NCCD.