Reasonable Expectations for California’s Prison Population Reduction

California’s game-changing prison reform is now underway. Tens of thousands of lower-level offenders are being transferred from state prisons to county jails and probation, relieving prison overcrowding and freeing resources for rehabilitation. State Attorney General Kamala Harris, who spoke at Stanford Law School yesterday, made the sage point that somewhere in the state at some point in the future, one of these offenders will commit a murder, and everyone who supports reform should be ready for that moment. Opponents will seize on the crime to pronounce the program a failure, despite the fact that the current system breeds violent crime inside and outside the walls.

As I wrote about last year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Alito argued that the possibility of an immediate spike in crime rates was sufficient reason to allow California’s prison overcrowding to continue. But that short-term view adopts the wrong analytic frame. Putting toothpaste back into a tube is always a mess, and any problems that occur under the new policy will reflect in part the legacy of the failed policies that preceded it.

The real question is whether in the long-term a policy of not putting many low-level offenders into prison will keep the public safer and better protect the human rights of incarcerated people (they have them, you know). The environment inside California prisons has to be seen (and smelled) to be believed. As a one-time prison inspector, I’ve seen it, and it’s brutalizing in the old sense of the word. The non-criminal population of California will be a benefactor as fewer offenders return to society damaged, enraged, sickened and unemployable due to their experiences in our inhumane and overcrowded prisons.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.