How Voters, Not Politicians, Are Reforming California’s Harsh Sentencing Laws

California voters approved a sweeping change to sentencing on
Tuesday by
passing Proposition 47
and knocking most drug possession and
“petty theft” charges down from felonies to a misdemeanors. Only
months earlier, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed similar, and more
modest, changes to California’s sentencing laws, claiming that the
state’s plan to “realign” convicts from state prisons to county
jails required more time to fully take effect.

This is not the first time California voters have routed around
the obstinate political establishment to address the state’s
massive prison overcrowding problem. In 2012, voters amended the
state’s longstanding Three Strikes law to allow resentencing of
nonviolent, nonserious third strikes. 

How did an ostensibly liberal state like California become one
of the worst overincarcerators in the nation? Watch the video above
for an inside look at the messy politics behind prison reform.

The story was originally published on Oct 24,
2014
. The original text is below:

“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including
adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human
dignity and has no place in civilized society,” wrote Justice
Anthony Kennedy for the majority in a Supreme Court ruling against
Governor Jerry Brown and the state of California in the 2011 case
Brown
v. Plata
.

The Supreme Court had just affirmed what lower courts had been
telling California for decades: The prisons are too crowded. It’s
time to fix the problem.

Three years later, after several extensions asked for and
granted, California’s government has managed to reduce the prison
population, but not by enough to meet the 137.5 percent of
occupational capacity target set by the courts. But they are close
enough, at 140 percent, to give Gov. Brown the confidence to
declare victory.

“The prison emergency is over in California,” Brown said at a
press conference in 2013. “It is now time to return the control of
our prison system to California.”

Brown’s strategy to combat overcrowding has been twofold: Send
inmates to out-of-state and/or private prisons, and shift low-level
offenders down to county jails. Predictably, this latter strategy,
called “realignment,” has led to an increase in the county jail
populations. 

“Rather dramatically, overnight, [realignment] changed the
makeup of our jails,” says Orange County assistant sheriff Steve
Kea.

But Brown has been particularly resistant to one type of change:
sentencing reform. While California’s voters amended the state’s
Three Strikes law in 2012, without the governor’s endorsement,
Brown has taken public stances against further reforms, such as
SB
649
, which would have given prosecutors the flexibility to
prosecute nonviolent drug crimes as misdemeanors rather than
felonies.

“California is, traditionally, seen as a liberal state,” says
Lauren Galik, Director of Criminal Justice Reform at Reason
Foundation. “But not when it comes to their sentencing laws and
prison population.”

For years, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s
Association (CCPOA), the prison guard union, has been one of the
most powerful political forces in the state. It was a key player in
the campaign to implement Three Strikes, and against the later
failed campaign to repeal it. In 2010, the union
poured more than $2 million
in independent expenditures into
Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial campaign. Lynne Lyman, state director
of the California
Drug Policy Alliance
, says that the enormous lobbying power of
the law enforcement unions has hampered serious reform in the state
and nationwide.

“It really doesn’t matter which party an elected official is
with,” says Lyman. “The contributions that are coming in from the
law enforcement associations and the private prison lobby…
they’re tremendous.”

Watch the video above for a deeper dive into the politics of
California’s prisons, featuring interviews with state prison
officials, local sheriffs, and former inmates.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Tracy Oppenheimer,
Alexis Garcia, William Neff, and Weissmueller. Photography by Todd
Krainin. Music by Chris Zabriskie. Approximately 9 minutes.

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