Years After Overcrowding Order, Crime Is Down, Prisons Emptier

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 30, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's been six years since a federal three-judge court ordered California to drastically reduce its prison population and four years since the Supreme Court affirmed that ruling. At the time, the order brought cries that there would be "blood in the streets" if state prison populations were reduced.

Of course, California didn't just open the prison gates and let inmates walk free. Instead, it instituted a realignment program, moving prisoners from state to local jails, and adopted changes to "tough on crime" laws. Since then, a new report shows, crime has continued to drop, while 18,000 inmates have been removed from California prisons.

The Road to Realignment

The order to end prison overcrowding came in 2009, following years of prisoner litigation. At the time, California prisons were almost 200 percent over capacity. Federal courts had ruled twice that prison overcrowding was preventing the state from providing inmates with necessary medical and mental health care, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In order to enforce those rulings, a three-judge federal court, convened under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, ordered the state to reduce its prison population drastically. Under that order, the state wouldn't have to eliminate overcrowding altogether; it would simply have to reduce prisons from 200 percent over capacity to 137.5 percent. The Supreme Court affirmed the order in 2011, finding the order a reasonable response to the state prisons' Eighth Amendment violations.

Shifting Focus Away From Incarceration

To comply with that ruling, Governor Jerry Brown adopted a prison realignment program. (That program turns four this Thursday.) Under realignment, nonviolent offenders were shifted to local jails from state prisons and local probation departments were given responsibility over their release.

Realignment came with other reforms. Two successful ballot tempered the state's three-strikes law, while Proposition 47 reduced many felony offenses to misdemeanors. Incarceration was no longer the primary focus of crime prevention and reduction.

Now, a new report by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that those changes have largely been successful. California is now in compliance with the court order and state prisons are much less crowded than four years ago. Realignment alone was not responsible for the change, however. That target was reached because of changes brought by Prop 47, according to PPI.

Offenders Released, Without Rampant Bloodshed

Realignment didn't just shift inmate populations, PPIC found. County jail populations rose less than prison population fell, reducing the total number of prisoners in California. Today, 18,000 offenders who would otherwise be incarcerated are out of jail because of the changes.

Unlike some early predictions, those changes haven't lead to increases in violent crime, according to the report. Both property and violent crime have reached historic lows, though PPIC concludes that a slight increase in auto theft can be attributed to realignment.

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