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A brief history of California’s prison population reduction legislation

Many argue that Prop 47 and 57 have done little to reduce the inmate population in California, and that those initiatives were more of a vocal public endorsement of rehabilitation efforts

Much has been made of the efforts in California to confront the overcrowding problem in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities by setting a population limit, reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors and realignment with the county jails.

A prison population reduction was mandated by court decisions in two different class action lawsuits that said the overcrowding in CDCR facilities led to inadequate mental health and medical care.

Debate continues over measures like AB109 and Propositions 47 and 57 – as well as the various initiatives mandated by Governor Jerry Brown – aimed at lowering the number of inmates housed by the CDCR.

Police leaders have maintained that lowering the prison population from 170,000 to 130,000 has made California’s streets less safe. But not all of those 40,000 prisoners have been released outright. Many have merely been sent to local jail facilities under the realignment set forth in AB109.

In addition, much of that reduction in numbers is because of the redefinition of some felonious drug crimes as misdemeanors, leading those convicted of those crimes to go to county jail as opposed to a CDCR prison. In addition, CDCR also no longer houses parole violators – they go to jails.

Many argue that Propositions 47 and 57 have done little to reduce the inmate population in California, and that those initiatives – which California voters passed in 2014 and 2016 respectively – were more about a vocal public endorsement of rehabilitation than reducing the population.

Admittedly, Prop 47 did lower the population somewhat. That initiative redefined some felonious drug offenses to misdemeanors and gave inmates the opportunity to appeal to the courts to reduce their sentences as a result. It has resulted in about 4,500 inmates being released, according to Bill Sessa, Communications Officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But that’s just 10 percent of the overall population reduction in the past half decade.

In addition, Prop 57 – which gives inmates an incentive to do more rehab work in exchange for more credit, which ultimately could accelerate their release date by a few months – hasn’t even gone into effect, so it has not resulted in any releases at all.

After Prop 57 goes into effect on July 1 of this year, inmates – most of whom can already earn credit off their sentence for participating in rehab programs and for good behavior – will have access to an expanded and enhanced program to earn good-behavior credits.

The biggest effort to reduce the inmate population was AB109, which realigned CDRC’s relationship with the county jails. That legislation changed where people were housed after their conviction. People convicted of what the Penal Code classifies as non-serious, non-sexual, and non-violent felonies are housed in jails instead of prison.

An unintended consequence: Going even greener

“We now have about 40,000 fewer inmates than we had in 2011,” said Sessa. “We are within the population cap set by the court. In addition, the health care receiver has returned to CDCR the administration of its medical program in about half of the prisons and that number is increasing rapidly.”

AB109 and Prop 47 have certainly had some effect on lowering the prison population, but most of the reduction has come from the fact that fewer criminals are being sent to CDCR facilities in the first place.

While AB109, Propositions 47 and 57, and various other efforts have been blamed by California law enforcement leaders for making the streets less safe – and an argument can be made that they’re absolutely correct in that assertion – at least one positive outcome has occurred. During the process of getting into compliance with the court’s mandate for improved mental health and medical care has accelerated the decades-long effort by CDCR to reduce water consumption, improve energy efficiency, and increase the use of recycled materials in the construction of their facilities.

Read more about that here.

Doug Wyllie is a senior contributor for Corrections1, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug hosts PoliceOne’s Policing Matters podcast.

Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie.