Why CA Should Rethink the Closure of Two State Prisons
California voters recently voiced in a UC Berkeley poll released April 14, 2022, that crime is one of the top three issues needed to be addressed in the state.
From organized looting to early release of violent criminals, the problem has grown exponentially, pressing Democrats – who normally find themselves promoting criminal justice reform efforts – to take a hard look at the repercussions of the amounting soft-on-crime legislation over the years, including Proposition 57.
Democrat Assemblymember Jim Cooper is running for Sacramento County Sheriff. Following the Sacramento shooting that took place on April 3 leaving six dead and 12 wounded, he spoke with the Sacramento Bee regarding the men who committed the devastating gang shootout: “They should have been in jail, grown men and gang members. And part of the problem is Prop. 57.”
Proposition 57 was put before voters in 2016 as a solution to solve prison overcrowding which had become a large problem in the state. At its height in 2006, the inmate population was over 173,000 inmates with prisons operating at more than 200 percent design capacity. Proposition 57 sought to solve this issue by allowing inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to receive more credits for good behavior and win parole faster.
However, what was not brought to light was the portion within Prop. 57 that allowed inmates convicted with violent crimes to also reduce their sentences through earned credits. Before Prop. 57, violent criminals could still earn credits to reduce their sentence but were required to serve at least 85% of their sentence. After the passage of Prop. 57, inmates convicted of violent crimes can now decrease their sentence through earned credits to 50%.
PRI expert on crime, Steve Smith, points to the failures of Prop. 57 we are seeing today: “What we have now is a trend of increasing property crime and violent crime in California and its clear [these crimes] like the Sacramento shooting were preventable. Homicides increased by 500 between 2019 and 2020. Prop. 57 [… was] vague where it needed to be, in order to convince voters into believing it would make them safer.”
Many in 2016 warned us of the negative impact Prop. 57 would have on our communities. Martin Halloran, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, George Hofstetter, president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, and Stephen Wagstaffe, president of the California District Attorneys Association, wrote the following in opposition to Prop. 57:
“Proposition 57 will allow criminals convicted of RAPE, LEWD ACTS AGAINST A CHILD, GANG GUN CRIMES and HUMAN TRAFFICKING to be released early from prison. Make no mistake. If Prop. 57 passes, every home, every neighborhood, every school will be less safe than it is today.”
So, after the passage of Prop. 57 and the criminals we are starting to see entering our communities today, did the prison overcrowding get solved?
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, “In January 2020, California state prisons held 33% more prisoners than they were designed to hold, at 122,000 people. By December, only 94,500 were incarcerated, a decrease of 27,500.”
Prison overcrowding has significantly decreased but still poses a problem despite the tens of thousands of inmates released early.
Governor Gavin Newsom responded, according to the 2020-21 California Budget, with developing a plan with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and California Correctional Health Care Services to close two state prisons. Closing prisons to boost a criminal justice reform publicity campaign for reelection does not seem to be the answer to increased crime in California and a continuing prison overcrowding problem.
With homicide rates and property crimes increasing, shootings from early release criminals on the rise and our prison system still bursting at its seams, the administration would benefit from taking a second look at closing prisons, reforming Prop. 57 and the early release / soft-on-crime initiatives being pushed in Sacramento. California victims and the safety of our streets depend on it.
Emily Humpal is the Pacific Research Institute’s deputy communications director.