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August 13, 2014 12:09 PM California’s Strange, Tragic Embrace of Prisons

By Keith Humphreys

California has for decades operated a large number of overcrowded prisons, in which conditions were recently described by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy as incompatible with the concept of human dignity and having no place in civilized society. If that were not sufficient cause for reform, the fiscal strain imposed by the state’s correctional system is now nearly $9 billion a year. Yet a generation of California elected officials — unlike their brethren in left-wing bastions such as South Carolina, Texas, South Dakota and Mississippi — have done nothing to reduce the size of the state’s prison population.

A range of lawsuits filed over many years (and fought by successive governors) recently culminated in the federal government forcing the state to move some prisoners to local jails. But Governor Jerry Brown is defying federal pressure to fully comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to reduce overcrowding to a still problematic 137% of capacity.

Even modest reforms to criminal sentencing get little love from elected officials in this Democratic Party-dominated state. Hope for change surged briefly last year when a bill to convert simple drug possession from a felony to a “wobbler” (a crime that could, depending on circumstances, be treated as either a felony or a misdemeanor) actually passed the state legislature after many similar prior bills had failed.

But Brown promptly vetoed it. At the time, he stated that a broad review of all sentencing was commencing, and that would be the vehicle to revamp the criminal justice system more broadly, including sentencing policy.

Almost a year later, Brown has shown no signs of honoring that commitment. Instead he has proposed another half billion dollars in new spending to build more jails and prisons.

Why so many red states have run rings about putatively progressive California in the pursuit of de-incarceration is a mystery that political scientists may one day unravel. In the meantime, a proposition to convert a significant number of felonies to misdemeanor status and to allow prisoners to retroactively appeal their sentences will be on the California ballot this November. The initiative, like the lawsuits before it, is a predictable consequence of elected officials repeatedly proving themselves unwilling to proactively address a serious social problem.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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