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California Adult Corrections

This is an introduction to California’s adult correctional system. In July 1852, California opened its first adult correctional institution at Point San Quentin on San Francisco Bay. This institution became San Quentin State Prison and remained the only California prison until Folsom State Prison was opened in 1880. Over the years as the state population grew, the number of prisons gradually expanded. Although the number of inmates increased, California’s rate of incarceration remained relatively stable until the 1980s.

Determinate Sentencing Law

In 1977, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL)„ eliminating rehabilitation as a goal of sentencing. After passage of the DSL, punishment and incapacitation of convicted offenders became California’s dominant sentencing goals. With the shift away from rehabilitation, California’s incarceration rate soared to unprecedented and unimagined levels. When the DSL was signed into law, California had a prison population of 20,000 housed in 12 prisons. Over the next three decades, the prison population would grow to 172,000 with the addition of 21 new prisons.

Since no provisions of the DSL established links between incarceration practices and prison and jail capacities, the law allowed legislators to set terms of imprisonment for particular crimes with little or no analysis and deliberation. According to the State’s Little Hoover Commission, by 2006, over 1,000 sentencing enhancement bills passed in the legislature that further exacerbated the prison crisis. Read the full LHC report (2007).

The Correctional Crisis

As the looming prison crisis quickly became apparent, some state officials and policy experts began seeking a consensus solution to slowing the prison population growth. In 1989, the first attempt at a new policy direction occurred under Governor Deukmejian with the appointment of a 21-member Blue Ribbon Commission on Inmate Population Management. Although he had long been a proponent of harsher sentencing since his tenure as Attorney General, Deukmejian privately began to recognize that the current policies were creating an out-of-control situation. As a result, following negotiations with Democratic legislators, he agreed to sponsor the commission.

Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask chaired the commission, which included representatives from every segment of the state’s criminal justice establishment. The commission met for over a year, reviewing the data, hearing from experts, and discussing options, before issuing a final report in June 1990. The Commission’s findings and recommendations would resonate and be repeated in subsequent reports over the next 20 years. The Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission concluded that the state’s criminal justice system was out of balance” and called for slowing explosive prison growth by expanding county community corrections options and creating a more rational sentencing system.

Although the report received much acclaim, it resulted in few concrete policy changes. Despite a general recognition that uncontrolled prison growth required attention, discussions about reducing prison populations were volatile and politically explosive. As a result, prison sentences became harsher and conditions continued to worsen through the 1990’s.

The deteriorating prison conditions and feeble state support for community corrections, led the Judicial Council of California and the California State Association of Counties to establish a task force to examine reforms to the probation system in 2000. After convening for three years, the task force issued a report in 2003 that reaffirmed the need to expand community corrections options by recommending that the state to transfer resources to the counties.

The Schwarzenegger Administration

The task force’s recommendations received further confirmation from Governor Schwarzenegger, who entered office in 2003 promising to address the correctional crisis. Under growing pressure from the Federal Courts, Schwarzenegger took the first substantive steps toward instituting reforms with a complete organizational overhaul of the correctional system in 2005. Seeking to assert control over the sprawling state correctional bureaucracy, the Governor consolidated all administrative functions under one superstructure and named the new agency the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). With a fresh mandate and consolidated management, state officials hoped that a new era of correctional leadership would begin.

Class action lawsuits against the state filed in 1990 and 2001 tested the new correctional administration as they gathered momentum. Unfortunately, the politics of prison population reduction proved too daunting, and legislative efforts to achieve a solution became delayed. In response to pressure from the federal courts and unable to achieve legislative approval for prison population reduction, the Schwarzenegger administration shifted its efforts to what was perceived as a more politically expedient solution – prison expansion and out-of-state inmate transfer.

The passage of Assembly Bill 900 (AB 900) on May 25, 2007, launched the effort to expand the prison system. This legislation was to inaugurate another round of unprecedented prison construction that would cost the state up to 7 billion dollars in capital expenses alone. However, as the state’s fiscal position began to weaken, few in Sacramento believed that the state had the capacity to institute another round of unprecedented prison expansion. AB 900 was not a viable alternative to the development of community correctional alternatives.

An uncharacteristically critical 2007 report by the Little Hoover Commission (LHC) highlighted the lack of political will to address the ongoing prison crisis. The LHC issued three major reports from 1990 to 2007 on the state prison crisis, and in each case reaffirmed the major recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission. In this case, the LHC additionally noted that time was expiring for the legislature to address the prison crisis as the system was operating at nearly 200% of capacity and on the brink of collapse.


With mounting pressure from the federal courts, legislative leaders finally stepped forward with bipartisan legislation to provide resources to the counties to expand probation services. The legislation, Senate Bill 678 (SB 678), called for the creation of community corrections programs that would improve probation practices and reduce prison commitments. Since the establishment of SB 678, counties have scrambled to implement the law. SB 678 represents the most comprehensive effort by the state to augment probation services since the Probation Subsidy Act of 1966.

In May 2011, in Brown v. Plata the United States Supreme Court mandated that California reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates due to unconstitutional prison conditions. Governor Brown addressed prison overcrowding through passing Assembly Bill 109 (AB 109), which realigned responsibility for adult non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders to the county level. AB 109 was implemented on October 1, 2011.

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