BROWN can point to only one clear policy achievement since he became governor
of California again last year. It has nothing to do with California’s ongoing
fiscal crisis, which Mr Brown has so far failed to solve: this week he
announced that a budget deficit he had previously estimated at $9 billion has
swelled to almost $16 billion. Instead, it concerns the equally pressing
disaster in the state’s prisons. Mr Brown’s sweeping reform, if it goes as
planned, might alleviate this crisis and become a model for other states. But
it is risky.
incarceration is an American problem. The country has about 5% of the world’s
population but almost 25% of its prisoners, with the world’s largest number of
inmates and highest per capita rate of incarceration. California eagerly
participated in this trend of locking up ever more people. During Mr Brown’s
previous stint as governor in the 1970s the state switched to more inflexible
sentencing. It then spent another two decades adding “tough-on-crime” laws that
kept extending sentences even for minor crimes.
resulting prison-building boom, and rapacious bargaining by the prison-guards
union, meant that state penitentiaries became the fastest-growing major cost in
the state budget. California’s 33 prisons and associated camps therefore bear
no small responsibility for the state’s recurring budget crises, and the
resultant crunch on school and university funding.
the prison craze also caused a humanitarian crisis as the places became
overcrowded with inmates. The human misery stayed somewhat hidden because most
state prisons are far away from cities, often in the dusty inland deserts. But
at one point the prisons housed twice as many inmates as they were built for,
and a lawsuit made its way to the US Supreme Court. Last year the court ruled
that California must reduce its imprisoned population to restore humane
Mr Brown had to do something. And he chose a policy that his wonks call
“realignment”. This refers broadly to a reallocation of power from the state to
counties. Specifically, it means shifting responsibility for punishment from
prisons, which in America are state or federal operations, to jails, which are
run by counties and their elected sheriffs.
already doing time in a state prison will stay there. But since October,
anybody in California who commits a new crime that is non-serious, non-violent,
and non-sexual (or “non-non-non”) has been sent to a county jail instead of
prison. The main difference is that sheriffs and their deputies have much more
discretion over how to deal with such offenders than state-prison wardens do.
can, for example, send troublemakers to mental-health treatment instead of
jail. They can “flash-incarcerate” people for just a few hours. They can put
them under home surveillance with a GPS monitor strapped to their ankle, or
make them do community service and drug rehabilitation. They can refer them to
vocational training so they can get jobs.
similar change applies to everybody now released from state prison. Before
October, all these people were automatically on “parole” (a state term). And
about two in three parolees soon ended up back in jail, usually for technical
hiccups, such as a missed meeting with a state parole officer. This revolving
door of recidivism has now largely stopped, as former prisoners enter
“probation” (a county term) and work with a local officer.
flow of new admissions into the prisons has thus begun to dry up. Capacity is
defined as one inmate per cell, or 80,000 inmates. And overcapacity is down to
about 155%, which may not sound like an improvement but is. To comply with the
Supreme Court, the number must fall to the oddly precise level of 137.5% by
next year. Matthew Cate, California’s prison boss, says that the state has met
the court’s first target for lowering prisoner numbers and might have to ask
for only a short extension to satisfy the final count.
new question, however, is whether realignment is merely shifting a humanitarian
disaster from the state to its 58 counties. The reform will work in the long
run only if the overall number of people behind bars in California declines.
Optimists say that it will, because sheriffs can do so many things to release
inmates safely. For instance, about three in four people in jail on any given
day have not been convicted of anything, and are there only because they can’t
afford bail, because bail amounts have risen so much. Many of these can be let
out until their trial.
pessimists worry that Mr Brown’s funding formula encourages the old and wrong
approach. As part of realignment, the state currently allocates money to
counties based on how many prisoners each county sent to state prison before
the reform took effect. This formula rewards lock-‘em-up counties such as Kern,
Riverside and Shasta. It punishes counties such as San Francisco or Alameda
that already had modern rehabilitation practices. Since sheriffs can use the
money as they please, some might simply build more jails, then fill them up
they might let jails become as overcrowded as prisons were. Merrick Bobb, the
independent counsel of Los Angeles County, estimates that its jail population
rose from 14,500 in 2011 to 17,000 this February and could grow to 21,000 by
2015 due to realignment. This would raise “inmate tension”, he notes, and thus
violence in a jail system that is already under investigation for abuses of
inmates (see article).
lot will depend on how the state measures the progress being made by different
counties. How do the changes affect crime on the streets? How ready are
sheriffs to experiment? The overall cause for optimism is a gradual change in
attitudes. In recent decades “America has seen prison as a place to throw
people away,” says Mr Cate, whereas “Europeans see prison as place people will
return from.” Californians, he thinks, have at last begun to reconsider the meaning
of “corrections and rehabilitation”, which is what they’ve officially called
prisons all along.