Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced he was ordering a “fundamentally new approach” in how the federal government prosecutes many low-level drug offenders, reversing decades of tough-on-crime political rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C.
Holder’s speech signals that the Obama administration has begun to reconsider the way it should punish certain offenders, something California Gov. Jerry Brown doesn’t seem to have given much thought to, despite the state’s ongoing prison-overcrowding crisis.
Much like the federal prison system, California’s prison population has skyrocketed over the past several decades, increasing more than 750 percent since 1977. California’s prisons are designed to house approximately 80,000 inmates, but have operated at roughly double their capacity for quite some time.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal court ruling that required California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity, a reduction of approximately 46,000 inmates, by July 2013. The deadline was later extended to the end of this year. The court stated that California’s abysmal prison conditions and dangerous levels of overcrowding were subjecting inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.
In an attempt to comply with the Supreme Court’s order, the California legislature adopted the policy of realignment, which proposed requiring lower-level offenders to serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons, as well as prohibiting prison terms for parolees who commit technical parole violations.
While realignment has led to some improvements, it does not offer a solution to the more serious problems that have significantly contributed to prison overcrowding, such as the state’s notorious three-strikes law.
The original intent of the three-strikes law was to keep violent, career criminals behind bars, but the law has been disproportionately used in sentencing those convicted of nonviolent crimes. Currently, second and third-strike inmates account for roughly 32 percent of all prisoners, and more than 40 percent of these inmates were convicted of a nonviolent drug or property crime.
In 2012, California voters passed Proposition 36 so that certain offenders are not sentenced as third-strikers if their third offense is a nonviolent crime, such as drug possession or petty theft. Additionally, those currently serving life sentences for non-serious, nonviolent third convictions have the opportunity to be resentenced to shorter prison terms or released. Previously, the law allowed for any offense to count as a third strike, which carries a life prison sentence, even if the third strike was a conviction for something as trivial as stealing a slice of pizza or a pair of gloves.
However, Proposition 36 did nothing for those convicted of a nonviolent second-strike offense. At the end of June 2013, 14,108 inmates were serving second-strike sentences in California for nonviolent drug and property crimes, accounting for more than 40 percent of all second-strikers, and more than 10 percent of the state’s total prison population.
California voters have already shown willingness to pullback the three strikes law. Nationally, public opinion is also firmly on the side of reforming harsh sentencing laws. A 2012 Pew poll found that nearly half of voters believed that too many people were in prison, and more than 80 percent supported reducing prison time for nonviolent offenders. A national Reason-Rupe poll this May found just 6 percent of Americans believe marijuana possession should result in jail time. And in California, over three-quarters of those who voted for Proposition 36 did so because they felt the current law was too harsh as written.
Instead of claiming the only way the state can reduce its prison population is by releasing dangerous offenders at the expense of public safety, Gov. Brown should instead insist that the legislature start by enacting one simple reform: eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for second-strike offenders whose current offense is a nonviolent drug or property crime.
“Widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Attorney General Holder said. He’s right, and it is time for California to act.
Lauren Galik is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article originally ran in the Orange County Register (paid subscription required).