Following Up On Prison Overcrowding

California made national headlines last year with the mandate to reduce its prison population in order to address egregious overcrowding. Prisons were so packed that they had difficulty providing enough beds for prisoners, let alone services like health care, food, and access to exercise, education, and other basic rights of life. Appalled by the conditions in California’s prisons, the Supreme Court issued a stern mandate, and the result was what is known as ‘realignment.’

Developed by Governor Brown, realignment made a great deal of sense from the state’s perspective, because it shifted responsibility to the county level. It shunted many offenders to county jails, leaving counties stuck with the costs of administering to them. Brown tried to spin it as an opportunity for counties to make their own decisions on how to handle offenders, but ultimately, it was a great way to try to get the budget deficit down without actually taking any responsibility for the people involved. Counties warned that they lacked the facilities, personnel, and funding to handle realignment safely, but their concerns were overridden in the quest for a quick fix.

In August of this year, it became apparent that the state was unlikely to meet the mandate, although prison populations had dropped a bit. Even with realignment, the state simply couldn’t keep up with mandatory sentencing laws and a justice system focused utterly on punishment, not on rehabilitation. The very structure of the system was designed to resist realignment, pushing people into prisons, not out of them, and forcing them to stay there or return for minor infractions of parole. Clearly, the state’s efforts weren’t working.

And the counties weren’t happy either. Residents of counties with sudden spikes in inmates aren’t taking well to the changes, especially when they involve leniency. Attitudes about crime and punishment are highly variable in the Golden State, and policies that work in one county will decidedly not work for another. For every one that pursues drug rehabilitation, mental health services, and other alternatives to incarceration designed to get at the root causes of specific behaviours and address them, others are struggling to balance demands from residents who would prefer to see people locked up with no opportunity for early release.

Inevitably, California’s overcrowded prisons are turning into California’s overcrowded jails, except that the jail system lacks the institutional support found in the prison system. While conditions in prisons are extremely inhumane, often abusive, and sometimes deeply troubling, they’re more equipped to handle large populations, flareups of violence, and other problems, while jails are not. For every problem in the prison system, like understaffing, poor training for personnel, crowding, and poor supervision, there are even more problems in jails.

Perhaps most infamously in Los Angeles County, where the jail system keeps popping up in headlines in a decidedly unflattering light. People sent into LA County facilities are not receiving fair treatment under the law, and this is a problem that’s only going to grow as the number of people remanded to those facilities escalates. The more people sent to jail, the more likely the possibility of abuse. Without addressing this concern, it’s going to be difficult to justify sending even more people to California’s jails, where they may be swallowed up by a deeply broken system that is not prepared to deal with them.

The Supreme Court was absolutely in the right when it mandated that California reduce its prison overcrowding. The conditions that originally led to the ruling were appalling and should have been considered a national shame. However, California’s implementation of a fix wasn’t the right approach, and that’s becoming painfully apparent as we see the aftermath of realignment. The Governor needs to return to the drawing board and try again to develop a solution that will be compassionate, effective, and appropriate for the state’s needs, rather than being the most convenient approach.

Counties are not structurally equipped to handle administration of justice on this scale, and the wildly different implementations of realignment across the state also create a situation where there is a gross miscarriage of justice. Depending on which county someone ends up in, that person could stay in jail, face house arrest, be sent out on work training, be allowed out on probation, or given some other option for serving out a sentence. That’s not fair or reasonable by any stretch of the imagination; why should two people convicted of the same crime in comparable circumstances serve two totally different sentences? How is this even vaguely justifiable, on top of all the other problems with realignment?

And why should counties, many of whom are struggling to care for their residents, be forced to shoulder the burden of the state’s dubious criminal justice policies? Some of the issues with the prison system date back to the 1970s and the development of a tough on crime era, legacies that we’re still struggling with, all of which involve legislation on a state, not local, level. The state wants to pass the laws without taking any responsibility for them, and it thinks counties are equipped, and obliged, to meet the responsibilities it will not.

Evidently it thought that the best way to limit prison overcrowding was to move people to jails. Not to, you know, directly address how and why people end up in prison, how long they stay there, and what makes them wind up there again. That information might actually be useful to have, and could change the way we approach the administration of criminal justice in the state, paving the way to long-lasting penal reforms that would keep even more people out of prison while making the state healthier, happier, and safer for everyone.