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May 2, 2021

With new good behavior rules, is California on track to achieve historic "cut 50" in its prison population?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article, headlined "76,000 California inmates now eligible for earlier releases," though it also picks up on a broader, decades-long prison reform story in the Golden State. First, from the AP:

California is giving 76,000 inmates, including violent and repeat felons, the opportunity to leave prison earlier as the state aims to further trim the population of what once was the nation’s largest state correctional system.

More than 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes will be eligible for good behavior credits that shorten their sentences by one-third instead of the one-fifth that had been in place since 2017.  That includes nearly 20,000 inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole.

The new rules take effect Saturday but it will be months or years before any inmates go free earlier. Corrections officials say the goal is to reward inmates who better themselves while critics said the move will endanger the public.

Under the change, more than 10,000 prisoners convicted of a second serious but nonviolent offense under the state’s “three strikes” law will be eligible for release after serving half their sentences.  That’s an increase from the current time-served credit of one-third of their sentence.  The same increased release time will apply to nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers, the corrections department projected....

The changes were approved this week by the state Office of Administrative Law. “The goal is to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving their time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons,” department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in a statement.  “Additionally, these changes would help to reduce the prison population by allowing incarcerated persons to earn their way home sooner,” she said....

Simas said the department was granted authority to make the changes through the rulemaking process and under the current budget.  By making them “emergency regulations” the agency could impose the new rules without public comment.  The department now must submit permanent regulations next year. They will be considered a public hearing and opportunity for public comment.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation that represents crime victims, said the notion that the credits are for good behavior is a misnomer. “You don’t have to be good to get good time credits. People who lose good time credits for misconduct get them back, they don’t stay gone,” he said. “They could be a useful device for managing the population if they had more teeth in them. But they don’t. They’re in reality just a giveaway.”...

California has been under court orders to reduce a prison population that peaked at 160,000 in 2006 and saw inmates being housed in gymnasiums and activity rooms.  In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court backed federal judges’ requirement that the state reduce overcrowding.

The population has been declining since the high court’s decision, starting when the state began keeping lower-level felons in county jails instead of state prisons.  In 2014, voters reduced penalties for property and drug crimes.  Two years later, voters approved allowing earlier parole for most inmates.  Before the pandemic hit, the population had dropped to 117,00 inmates. In the last year, 21,000 more have left state prisons — with about half being held temporarily in county jails.

This blog has long followed the many remarkable chapters in California's prison reform story (see a sampling below).  I particularly recall amusing myself with this post and title, "Hasta la vista, prison overcrowding!", when Gov Schwarzenegger 15 years ago issued a proclamation calling the California Legislature into special session to address prison crowding issues.  The state prison population was actually well over 170,000 around that time.  Some population reductions started around the Plata litigation — the SCOTUS ruling noted that, at "the time of trial, California’s correctional facilities held some 156,000 persons" — and further prison population reduction efforts kicked into high gear in the years following the Supreme Court's important Plata decision.

As this AP article notes, before the pandemic, the California prison population was under 120,000.  But as of last week, as detailed in this state weekly population report, the population now stands at 95,817.  If these new good behavior rules could possibly result in another prison population reduction of around 10,000 — and that is probably a very big "if"  — then California will have achieved a remarkable decarceration milestone.  If it can get down to around 86,000 prisoners, the state of California — which not so long ago had the largest state prison population within a country with the largest prison populaion in the world — will have cut its prison population by 50%.  I would surely call that a golden achievement for the Golden State. 

A few of many prior related posts about California prison populations and reforms:

May 2, 2021 at 07:28 PM | Permalink

Comments

Until SCOTUS backed the California Supreme Court's decision, the prison guards' union kept fomenting the population and the Legislature to remain "tough on crime". The guards' union even lobbied against changing California's 3-strikes laws, which had resulted in 3,300 inmates having life sentences. The tail wagged the dog for far too long in California.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | May 2, 2021 9:23:12 PM

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