Downsizing the Prison Population, in California and Beyond
As we begin 2012, it looks like California is on track to meet its court-ordered benchmarks for reducing the state prison population. KALW/The Informant notes:
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, readying its January 10 report to the federal court in the Northern District of California, announced it’s currently operating at 169.2 percent of its designed capacity. That number nearly hits the 167-percent figure the court demanded California meet by December 27, 2011.
In actual numbers, that means that the prison population has fallen by about 8,000 inmates since October–and should continue to drop at its current rate of about 900 a week.
The population decline is enabling CDCR to shut down “ugly beds” — the double- and even triple-bunk beds crammed into gymnasiums that became notorious through widely circulated photographs and video footage at the height of California’s overcrowding crisis. (Here are some photos of gyms and day rooms in the process of being converted back to recreational use.)
Of course, meeting short-term benchmarks is one thing; it remains to be seen if the population reduction is sustainable over the long run. Moreover, much of the population decline has been achieved by shifting responsibility for punishing low-level offenders down to the county level beginning in October 2011, and it’s too soon to say how well counties are handling their new duties.
While California had a more immediate impetus, in the form of a federal court order, to seek ways to reduce its prison population, it’s not unique in downsizing. The nation’s total incarcerated population began declining in 2010 for the first time since the 1970s. This aggregate decline has been experienced unevenly from state to state, however, and about half of states have continued to see increases. New York, for instance, has maintained steady annual declines for the past decade, but Illinois saw its prison population rise last year. And the federal prison population has continued to grow (driven largely by drug and immigration prosecutions), although at a slowing rate.
At The Crime Report, Malcolm C. Young provides a useful overview of these trends and argues that a broader-based reform movement will be needed to truly make a dent in mass incarceration:
Except among highly committed corrections staff, advocates and a handful of political leaders, it is difficult to discern evidence of a genuine consensus favoring reductions in prison populations.
So far, neither the dollar nor human costs of a massive system of incarceration and its racial and class impacts, have ignited a widespread, energized political or social movement opposite of that which resulted in mass incarceration.