The Governor’s New Ballot Initiative Aims to Tackle Prison Overcrowding

A proposed ballot initiative backed by Governor Brown — and unveiled yesterday — advances a new approach for reducing overcrowding in California’s state prisons. This measure would give state officials additional tools to speed up the release of certain adults from prison, particularly individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses. As a result, it would — to a limited degree — revive the “indeterminate sentencing” model that prevailed in California until the mid-1970s, when state policymakers shifted toward “determinate sentencing.” The Governor’s proposal also would “require a judge, not a prosecutor, to decide whether juveniles should be tried in adult court.” Proponents need more than 585,000 valid signatures to put this measure on the November 2016 statewide ballot. (Watch for the Budget Center’s analysis later this year if the Governor’s initiative does qualify for the ballot, as seems likely.)

The Governor’s proposal doesn’t directly take on California’s harsh, one-size-fits-all sentencing laws, particularly the various “enhancements” that have been adopted over the years and have dramatically increased sentence lengths. Instead, this proposal would work around California’s bloated Penal Code by making it easier for some incarcerated adults — presumably those who can show that they’ve been rehabilitated — to gain early release from prison. In this way, the Governor’s measure appears to be headed in the right direction in terms of helping to end mass incarceration in California.

However, it’s unclear how large the reduction in the prison population — and the savings to the state budget — would be if the Governor’s proposal were to win voter approval. State prisons are currently operating at about 136 percent of capacity, and California houses more than 10,000 adults in “contract” facilities in order to comply with a court-ordered prison population cap. Only by ending the use of “contract beds” and closing one or more state prisons can California significantly, and permanently, reduce corrections spending through the state budget, as we pointed out in a recent report. Although the Governor’s measure decries “wasteful spending on prisons,” it remains to be seen whether his proposal would reduce incarceration enough to allow the state to close prisons and thereby generate substantial state savings — dollars that could be reinvested in higher-priority public services and systems in the years ahead.

— Scott Graves