On issues of crime and punishment, California voters are demanding a rewrite.
After a four-decade incarceration binge, the state is taking steps to reduce prison populations, which have come at ruinous costs for state coffers and for the disproportionately black and Latino individuals and families who are affected.
The latest step came last month, as California voters approved a ballot measure to reclassify a number of low level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Under Prop 47, offenses such as shoplifting, writing hot checks, and drug possession would be punished less harshly. This would potentially allow 10,000 individuals currently imprisoned to petition to have their sentences reduced and to return to their families sooner.
In recent years, California has served as an intriguing case study for reducing prison populations without harming public safety. After the state was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 to address its prison overcrowding crisis, lawmakers responded with a policy of “realignment,” which shifted supervision of non-violent offenders and parole violators to local communities. In 2012, California voters approved a ballot proposal to ensure that the state’s notorious Three Strikes Law would not send people to prison for life for non-serious offenses.
The effect of these and other changes has been dramatic. Between 2006 and 2012, California’s prison population decreased by nearly a quarter and while doing so, its drop in violent crime exceeded the national average. These developments, along with similar developments in New York and New Jersey, show increased support among both policymakers and the public for a public safety strategy that is less reliant on incarceration.
But the largely untold story of criminal justice reform in California is what could happen with the savings.
Under Prop 47—of the hundreds of millions of dollars of projected state prison savings each year—a significant portion will be allocated to preventing crime from happening in the first place. This will include investments in mental health and substance abuse treatment, programs to reduce school truancy and prevent dropouts, and support for victim services.
Research—as well as common sense—suggest that such interventions can be more effective in reducing crime than incarceration. But that is not the way our nation has been operating.
Like other states, California has for decades used the criminal justice system to respond to social problems. Following the failure of other institutions to provide opportunity and education—and yes, to deal with behavioral problems—police, prosecutors, and prisons have taken on roles that used to be left to schools, parents, social workers, and others in local communities.
This is particularly true with the war on drugs, which is a primary driver of mass incarceration and racial disparities. Today, about 75 percent of incarcerated individuals have a history of substance abuse. One of every six has a history of mental illness. Many were abused. About two-thirds of individuals imprisoned on a drug charge are black or Latino, even though people of all races use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates.
Though we have initiatives aimed at early childhood education, therapeutic interventions for at-risk youth, and treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, they are painfully underfunded compared to the scope of the problem. Instead of investing in such interventions, we have turned to the criminal justice system, which is an extremely expensive way to address these problems. Few would dispute that incarceration is sometimes necessary, but the question we should be asking is whether incarceration is the most effective way to ensure safe and healthy communities.
In a definitive report earlier this year, the National Research Council concluded that the rise of mass imprisonment in the United States has “transformed not only the criminal justice system, but also U.S. race relations and the institutional landscape of urban poverty.”
To truly address America’s mass incarceration epidemic, we will need to divert people to substance abuse and mental health treatments rather than sending them to prisons and jails. We’ll need to remove barriers that keep people with criminal records from starting a new life. And above all, we’ll need to shift resources away from prisons and invest them in communities.
Prop 47 is only a start, but it may mark a new day for criminal justice reform.