Californians Vote to Weaken Mass Incarceration

With the approval of Proposition 47 Tuesday, the Golden State will make major reforms to its sentencing laws.

Inmates walk around a gymnasium where they are housed due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California in June 2011. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

California's Proposition 47 wasn't one of the most followed votes in Tuesday's midterm election, but it could change thousands of lives soon. Under the ballot initiative, dozens of nonviolent property and drug crimes will be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, potentially freeing tens of thousands of prisoners. Funds that would have otherwise been spent on their incarceration will now be funneled into mental health and drug-treatment programs.

The sentencing-reform measure passed in Tuesday's election with 58 percent of the vote. A large web of donors including California's Catholic bishops, tech-industry giants, and justice-reform groups contributed to its passage; prominent supporters of the measure ranged from Jay-Z to Newt Gingrich.

For the state's beleaguered prison system, Prop 47's changes are long overdue. California prisons and jails have suffered under deplorable conditions for years, resulting in multiple class-action lawsuits from prisoners. By 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and ordered the state to substantially reduce its prisoner population within two years. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted with the majority in Plata v. Brown, summarized the crisis in his majority opinion:

The degree of overcrowding in California’s prisons is exceptional. California’s prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the three-judge court’s decision, the population was almost double that. The State’s prisons had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years. Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers. As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.

These dire conditions took an immense physical and psychological toll on those living under them. Kennedy noted that California's inmate suicide rate in 2006 "was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison population." To remedy the Eighth Amendment's "systemic violation" in California prisons, as Kennedy phrased it, the Court backed a lower-court plan to reduce the inmate population to 137.5 percent of the system's design occupancy. If the state does not reduce its prison population below this threshold by February 2016, the three-judge panel will appoint a compliance officer to release prisoners early.

California legislators responded by changing the sentencing laws under the Public Safety Realignment Act. Under the state's policy of "realignment," parole violators and inmates convicted of non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual felonies are diverted to county jails instead of state prisons.* With fewer new inmates to replenish those who leave, realignment lowered the overall state prison population by 25,000 inmates through simple attrition. Other steps were also taken: Jerry Brown, who won his fourth term as governor on Tuesday, signed off on the release of over 1,400 prisoners serving life with parole over the last three years.

But Brown has also resisted the judiciary's efforts to reduce prison populations even faster. Amid contentious arguments between the governor and the federal judiciary, the three-judge panel extended the deadline earlier this year to reach the 137.5 percent occupancy rate until 2016. A Los Angeles Times analysis earlier this year found that despite Brown's proclamation last year that "the prison emergency is over," serious problems remain. State prison spending grew $2 billion since 2011, and inmate populations are still forecast to increase in the immediate future. Brown's 2014-15 state budget also sets aside nearly $500 million for private prisons to reduce state prison numbers.

How will Prop 47 help? Almost 40,000 felony convictions are likely to be reduced to misdemeanors, and about 7,000 inmates will be able to petition the courts immediately for early release. An estimated one-in-five inmates currently serving time in the state would be affected. There's a significant fiscal benefit, too: Official estimates suggest the measure could save California hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

But the effects aren't limited to population counts and cell-block overcrowding. Once outside the prison walls, the difference between a felony conviction and a misdemeanor conviction can radically affect a former inmate's prospects for housing, employment, and government assistance. Reclassifying these crimes as misdemeanors will also save untold numbers of future Californians from unnecessarily harsh sentences and lifelong stigma.

Beyond the tangible impact, Prop 47 itself also carries a powerful symbolic weight. Mass incarceration did not arise contrary to public support, but because of it. It's one thing for electorally safe legislators and unelected federal judges to release prisoners and relax sentencing laws. When the people themselves take the leap, it's much harder to ignore the problem—or the solutions.

* This post originally stated that thousands of prisoners were released, rather than transferred to country jails. We regret the error.