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RJ Donovan Prison, currently undergoing expansion as the state prison population continues to fall.


California’s violent crime rate is at its lowest point since 1967. The state prisoner population has dropped by nearly 40,000 since its peak of more than 170,000 in 2007, due to long-overdue sentencing reforms; as more reforms take hold, the population should continue to fall. This is the perfect opportunity for the state to begin reducing the capacity of its enormous prison system, and — given California’s distinction of having the highest poverty rate in the nation — diverting some of the billions it spends on corrections to strengthening the social safety net. Yet the governor’s proposed budget for 2015 – 2016 reveals that the state intends to continue feeding its addiction to over-incarceration, upping its spending on corrections and expanding its prisons. 

In the 2015 – 2016 fiscal year, Brown proposes to spend nearly $10.2 billion of its general fund on corrections, or 9 percent of the total. That proportion is similar to previous years — and more than three times what it was 25 years ago. The figures are even more dismal upon closer inspection: spending is up 20.3 percent on general security,” up 30 percent on contracted facilities (such as for-profit prisons), and down 8.6 percent on rehabilitative programs (see chart). In fact, in the coming fiscal year, Brown is proposing to spend more on contracted facilities than on all rehabilitative programs combined — including education, cognitive behavioral treatment, substance abuse treatment, community-based aftercare, activity programs, and reentry and employment programs. 

Change in spending from 2013 – 2014 enacted budget to 2015 – 2016 proposed budget. Source: Dept. of Finance.

Perhaps most concerning is the missed opportunity to begin shrinking the state’s immense prison system, which currently incarcerates nearly 133,000 people between its 34 prisons, three prison camps, six private in-state facilities, three private out-of-state prisons, and state mental institutions. Instead, the budget provides for the expansion of existing prisons, increasing capacity by nearly 2,400 beds and adding $35.5 million in prison costs. 

These moves are glaringly out of place in 2015. Recent years have seen significant sentencing reforms like Realignment, Proposition 36 (restricting the Three Strikes law), Proposition 47 (defelonizing drug possession and petty theft-related offenses), SB 260 (providing an expedited parole process for people who were under 18 at the time of the offense), and marijuana decriminalization. The governor is finally allowing lifers to parole when they’ve been found suitable for release. 

On top of those changes, the Court has ordered several prudent policies to decrease overcrowding to a Constitutional level. Among the changes: second strikers convicted of non-violent offenses can now knock off more time with good time credits and will have an opportunity for parole after serving half of their sentences, and people who are 60 and over and have served 25 years will also have a chance to parole. These policies could be significantly yet safely expanded — extending reforms to second strikers with violent offenses, for example, and decreasing the necessary age and time served to be eligible for elderly parole.

It’s time for California to break from its disgraceful past of locking up too many people for too many reasons and for far too long — and begin planning for a future without mass incarceration. Shrinking the state’s prison system is an essential step down this path.