California Begins Dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex

The tough on crime period of the 1980s led to the passage of a flurry of laws that made many nonviolent crimes punishable by prison sentences. Over the next 20 years, the incarceration rate increased exponentially, and the number of people in the prison system has swelled to more than 2 million in the United States. California led the way for incarceration, with one of the largest prison populations in the country.

The California prison system has been overcrowded for decades, leading to class action lawsuits and a United States Supreme Court mandated reduction in the population. In the last three years, the California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown have taken various steps to reduce the population. The focus has been on finding ways to reduce sentences and release prisoners convicted of nonviolent and nonsexual crimes via realignment.  This has reduced the prison population by tens of thousands, largely by transferring them to local jails.

On Tuesday, California voters may have helped get them out of jail and possibly keep future offenders out of the prison system for good.

Proposition 47 reduces criminal penalties and sentences for several nonviolent crimes. The majority of these crimes fell into the category of “wobblers.” A wobbler crime is one that could be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the nature of the crime or, more often, the mood of the prosecutor. The initiative has now made all the crimes in these categories misdemeanors.

Drug possession for personal use was already a misdemeanor.  However, depending on the amount or the type of drug, the possession could be charged as a felony. The measure now makes all types of drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor. The exception is marijuana, which remains as either an infraction or a misdemeanor. Other wobbler crimes, such as property theft, shoplifting or check forgery are automatic misdemeanors as long as the value is $950 or less.

Future offenders will now be dealt with by the local district attorney’s office, which handles misdemeanor cases. Misdemeanors are rarely punished by jail time and, if they are, are sentenced to no longer than one year. Furthermore, due to jail overcrowding, few inmates remain in jail for the full term. First time offenders also have several options for completing their sentencing, including community service, drug treatment programs and probation.

Most importantly, they are out of the system much quicker than felons.

The measure will have immediate effects. Those that were facing felony charges prior to November 4 are now facing misdemeanor charges and a future with less severe options. Prisoners that are serving sentences for these charges can now petition to have their sentences and charges reduced. If they have finished serving their time, they can petition to have their convictions changed to misdemeanors.

However, no one who has committed certain violent acts can have their sentences reduced or their convictions changed.

Women prisoners will possibly benefit the most. Nearly two-thirds of  incarcerated women in California are in prison for nonviolent drug and property related crimes (which are often related to drug use).  Nearly 60 percent of these women have children and can now be on their way home sooner to rebuild their lives. Prisoners serving time for California’s three strikes law, which meant mandatory life imprisonment after a third felony conviction, could also have their sentences reduced if none of those felonies involved violent crimes.

There will be also changes in the caseloads. In the immediate aftermath, courts and district attorneys will have to prepare for an increase in new misdemeanor cases and resentencing requests. However, in the long term, there will be less of a case load as misdemeanor cases are dealt with much quicker, not to mention that parole and probation officers could have fewer people under their supervision. This will free them up to focus on the more serious offenders and possibly lead to better supervision.

The reduction in the prison population, which could be reduced by as much as 40,000 inmates relatively quickly, will have substantial savings in the millions of dollars. The measure sets aside that funding for certain prevention programs known to reduce the chance for someone entering the system. The money will be used for school truancy programs, drug and alcohol treatment programs, and increased funding for mental health programs.

In other words, they will take the money used for incarceration for programs that could eliminate the need for incarceration. Thanks to the voters, California has taken a huge step towards dismantling the prison industrial complex in the state. Let’s hope that the rest of the nation will follow.


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Jennifer Hayes
Jennifer H4 years ago

I think this is gonna be a wait and see as to what actually happens and if it is really for the better of the state.

Cathleen K.
Cathleen K4 years ago

California created it's prison disaster by stupid referendums, so it could only be fixed the same way. Referendums are wonderful things when a state or county is thinking about making a major change, but when anyone can put one on the ballot after gathering enough signatures, the results are usually pretty awful. It's easy to scare people into signing a petition and then voting for something like the three strikes law; it's an IQ test that most people will fail unless they have police or legal experience, in which case you have the information needed to predict that you'd be sentencing people to life for stealing a piece of pizza, as California did.

Decriminalize drugs and prostitution and you'd end most 'crime', and you'd put the gangs out of business, because that's how they make their money.

Angela P.
Angie P4 years ago

Sounds like good news for a lot of people.

Freya H.
Freya H4 years ago

Good for California! Finally people are waking up to the cold, hard fact that privatizing prisons is a total clusterf###. Our so-called justice/corrections system is in desperate need of epic reform, as in clean-out-the-Augean-stables reform.

Phillip Ferrell
Phillip Ferrell4 years ago

Society has a way of getting bogged down with rules until it's full of burdens.

Dominic C.
Dominic C4 years ago

California has to do this. The prison industrial complex is just killing the state's budget! Sanctioning someone of less felonious crime in the community by electronically tagging him or her is a much better alternative. Moreover, this lessens any sort of criminalizations or hardening of the behavior and offenders can get much better care in health protection and protection from being physically assaulted, abused, harassed, raped, etc., etc., etc. The offender can also settle his or her debts or restitution. Moreover, this creates more jobs for the state by having more probation and monitoring officers.

Anne G.
Anne G4 years ago

Great news. I always wondered why people convicted of non-violent crimes, petty crimes couldn't just have a leg monitor. Maybe it's expensive, but it has to be less than prison and less violent. Keep them prisoners at home, or? Just a thought.

Steven G.
Steven G4 years ago

Then you have banks like HSBC Holdings, a British multinational banking and financial services company headquartered in London who launders billions of dollars yearly for the international drug cartels and all they receive is a fine? They violate "sanctions" imposed by the international community/United Nations with impunity? I think that the DoJ and similar agencies either have their priorities screwed up or they're intrinsically involved in these RICO crimes. And naturally, Congress does nothing because it might expose their involvement. It's just business as usual folks. Don't worry your little heads about it, there's much more shocking stuff on Jerry Springer.

Bruce K.
Bruce K4 years ago

Well they have to make room for all the new Illegals