Evidence-Based Reforms to Reduce California’s Overcrowded Prisons

July 28, 2020

California’s overcrowded prisons have become a breeding ground for the coronavirus. The state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has reported a total of 7,703 confirmed COVID-19 cases in its 35 facilities since the start of the pandemic. As coronavirus cases continue to rise, many including lawmakers and criminal justice scholars have called on Governor Newsom to release some of the system’s 108,000 inmates. The state has already released approximately 3,500 people who were close to the end of their sentences, and the Administration announced in early July that an additional 8,000 people could be eligible for release by the end of August. Despite these releases, the state’s prisons remain overcrowded and operating at 124 percent of capacity, as of June 30.

The Commission addressed the state’s overcrowded prisons in a 2014 report, “Sensible Sentencing for a Safer California.” The Commission found that hundreds of laws had been enacted to increase sentencing length, add sentence enhancement and create new sentencing laws. This led to a structural imbalance between what the state’s sentencing laws require and its public safety resources. Advocates for sentencing reform told the Commission that these laws put away offenders for increasingly longer periods of time with no evidence that lengthy incarceration, for many, brings any additional benefit to public safety. To help address this imbalance and provide more certainty in sentencing, the Commission urged the state to re-evaluate its criminal justice sentencing structure and institute evidence-based sentencing practices. However, the Commission acknowledged that much of the critical data needed to inform this strategy was not being collected. The Commission recommended that the state establish a Criminal Justice Information Center to collect data on sentencing and best practices and recommend opportunities to improve sentencing and public safety. This would serve as the first step in the state developing an independent sentencing commission – recommended by this Commission twice before and by many others.

Several attempts to create similar bodies have not been successful but are still highly needed, especially now as the coronavirus spreads within the prison system and accelerates decisions about parole.

The Commission also found that programs and services that can help offenders successfully transition back into their communities are key to successful reintegration and play a critical role in reducing the prison population. The Commission suggested that the state could efficiently provide re-entry services through public-private partnerships where public money is used to fund community-based organizations. At the time, University of California, Los Angeles researchers studying a non-profit that provides training, jobs, and additional support services to previously incarcerated individuals, found a four-year recidivism rate of 33 percent in one of the organization’s job training and wraparound services programs. In comparison, felons released directly from state prisons experienced a three-year recidivism rate of 63.7 percent. The annual per trainee cost of this program was nearly half the annual cost of imprisoning an adult in a state facility and 15 percent of the annual cost of incarcerating a youth in a state facility.

Investing in public-private partnerships would allow the state to leverage the expertise of organizations with proven service delivery models, without having to reinvent the wheel at the state or local level. To jumpstart this process, the Commission recommended that the state do more to incentivize counties to expand public-private partnerships to provide services for offenders re-entering their communities. Some counties have already taken steps in this direction. Alameda County allocates 50 percent of its criminal justice realignment funding to community services to develop new programs and services at each stage in the justice process while Contra Costa County allocates approximately 60 percent of its realignment funds to programs and services designed to assist people convicted of crimes.

The importance of these programs is even further amplified during the current public health crisis, as the thousands of Californians released from prisons encounter the typical obstacles of re-entering society, now also face a multitude of pandemic-related challenges, such as finding housing amid shelter closures or scheduling a driver’s license appointment with impacted DMV offices. And in light of the tough budget challenges now facing the state and counties, partnerships with community-based organizations could provide a cost-effective way to leverage limited resources and help this vulnerable population reintegrate back into society.

As California continues to address the COVID-19 pandemic within its prison system, the Commission encourages policymakers to consider our recommendations on implementing evidence-based criminal justice sentencing reforms and incentivizing public-private partnerships to reduce prison overcrowding, reduce recidivism, and prevent crime.

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