Overpopulation in the California State Prison System
By Sanaz Tahernia
The state of California is home to one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. There are a total of 33 prison facilities throughout the state, that house approximately 110,000 total inmates. Notably, that number neither accounts for inmates serving time for misdemeanor offenses, as they are usually housed in county jail facilities; nor does it include the number of inmates awaiting trial or sentencing. Considering California is the second largest state in the contiguous United States, a high volume of inmates can be expected, however, 32 of the 33 prison facilities hold more inmates than the allotted capacity. In fact, the overcrowding in one prison is so high that the number of inmates exceeds almost double the capacity for which it was built.
Population Percent of State Prison datacards mapped by Location
Chart A - An illustration of the 33 state prisons throughout California and relevant statistics, including the percentage of overcrowding at each facility. (i.e., California State Prison, Centinela's population is at 136% of the allotted capacity.)
Capacity, Before Prop 47 and After Prop 47 of State Prison datacards
Chart B - This chart illustrates (1) the capacity of each jail in blue; (2) the population prior to the passing of Prop 47 in green; and (3) the population after Prop 47 passed, in orange.
In response to the overcrowding issue, California legislatures developed a ballot called Proposition 47, also known by its ballot title "Criminal Sentences. Misdemeanor Penalties. Initiative Statute". Prop 47 was designed to convert and reduce many nonviolent offenses, such as drug and property offenses, from felonies to misdemeanors - assuming they fit the criteria set forth in the ballot. And under the terms of Prop 47, the money saved as a result of the lowered incarceration rates would be put towards drug treatment facilities and education.
Felonies are defined as crimes that are punishable by imprisonment, in state prison, for a year or more. A misdemeanor offense is a charge attached to a crime for which the potential sentence is less than a year, and the convicted individual serves his term in county jail. Therefore, Prop 47 would effectively lower the prison population as the inmates with reduced charges would be taken out of the state prison system.
On November 4, 2014, 59.61% of California voters voted to pass Prop 47, and as a result, California Penal Code section 1170.18 was created, providing convicted felons an avenue through which they could petition to the sentencing court to have their felony sentences reduced to a misdemeanor. Additionally, felons that had already served their term, and completed their sentence would be allowed to apply to the sentencing court to have their felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor on their criminal record. Since the passing of Prop 47, approximately 13,000 inmates have been released; however, for a prison system holding more than 110,000 inmates when it was designed for a maximum of 80,000, it may not have made the impact legislatures were hoping for just yet.
According to an article in the LA Times published in light of the Prop 47 anniversary, although Prop 47 has definitely reduced the overall population, even that of county jails, it has not reduced the rate at which the crimes are committed. In fact, although narcotics arrests have dropped by 30 percent since last year, property crimes have increased about eight percent, while auto thefts alone are up by 20 percent. In addition to all that, violent crimes have increased in 10 of California's largest cities. Despite an order from Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell to continue making drug arrests, the number of narcotics arrests have dropped because it can take hours to actually complete the booking process - a process that law enforcement officials may not want to endure for lower level crimes. However, a failure to arrest an offender cannot be statistically considered as a decrease in the commission of the crime, even if prison rates are reduced.
Former Los Angeles County Public Defender, and current NBC legal analyst, and renowned Los Angeles criminal defense attorney, Louis Shapiro believes that "in the long run, Prop 47 will not result in a significant decrease in the prison population", as legislatures would hope. Shapiro further elaborates that the ballot "only addresses a small fraction of the crimes that result in prison incarceration," and that "most crimes it [does address], people likely did not go to prison for, and if they did, it was for a relatively short period of time." Shapiro has been defending individuals charged with both felony and misdemeanor counts for approximately a decade, and based on his expertise, he believes that the "only thing that will help prison overcrowding is an alternative comprehensive mental health system."
All in all, in light of Prop 47's impact on the reduction in the California state prison population, the impact has clearly not been substantial enough to bring the incarceration rates below capacity. Thus, the state of California might have to consider other viable options to remedy this problem.
Before Prop 47 and Population Percent of State Prison datacards
Location of State Prison datacards