How California's Prison Population Exploded 

And why the costs of housing inmates skyrocketed at the same time.

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These so-called "tough-on-crime" policies also have had other dramatic impacts. Since 1977, the number of California prisoners has increased by more than 800 percent. In 1977, prison spending accounted for just 3 percent of California's general budget. By 2010, it had jumped to 10 percent. Krisberg cites the shift more than three decades ago to determinate sentencing for the explosion of the state's prison population, and the accompanying costs.

In short, tough-on-crime policies that favored punishment over rehabilitation have led to a substantial increase in the number of repeat offenders — people who do their time without having to learn any tangible job skills or rehabilitate themselves in any way, and are then released to society to commit more crimes. At the same time, the cash-strapped state has been forced to spend an increasing percentage of its scarce funds on warehousing people — rather than on basic services, such as education.

It's no wonder Brown has expressed regret for signing the Determinate Sentencing Law 35 years ago.


From the 1940s to the 1960s, California prisons were the envy of the nation. The system maintained a low recidivism rate; its wardens held advanced degrees in social work; many rehabilitation programs were mandatory, and the ones that weren't enjoyed high enrollment numbers because inmates wanted to impress their parole boards. "California was the model of good correctional management and inmate programming," said Stanford University law professor Joan Petersilia.

But the system also had its drawbacks, so much so that by the late 1970s, there was a strong bipartisan push to dismantle indeterminate sentencing entirely. Liberals thought it wasn't transparent enough; one person might serve six months for dealing drugs and another could serve a lifetime for the same crime. Accusations of racial discrimination and favoritism flooded the courts.

Conservatives, meanwhile, attacked indeterminate sentencing, believing it produced lenient sentences. There also were accusations that the state released inmates for political and social reasons. This sparked the "truth in sentencing" movement; that is, the sentence you get in the courtroom should be the sentence you serve.

State leaders, as a result, decided to "reform" the system. While the most violent offenders — killers, rapists, and kidnappers — would still have indeterminate sentences, the majority of inmates would now face determinate sentencing. Under the latter, a judge chooses from three sentences: high, medium, and low. For example, first-degree burglary carries a base sentence of two, four, or six years in prison. Once sentenced, the inmate essentially serves exactly that amount of time in prison — minus time off for good behavior, which is granted routinely.

The determinate sentencing law also led to a massive transformation of the state penal code. The legislature was put in charge of deciding which crimes carried which sentences. "Suddenly, in this very political environment, with everybody watching, with the media there, you have elected officials who don't necessarily have training or background deciding [the scale] of penalties," Krisberg explained. The change sparked an era of tough-on-crime politics in California. "It almost became a bidding war," Krisberg added. "You know, 'I want to show that I am tougher on crime than you, so if you think a rapist should get ten years, I think he should get twenty years.' So there has been this natural escalation upwards."

This upward escalation in penalties reflected what Krisberg calls a "moral panic about crime. Voters were concerned with it. People would get defeated for office because of it. We would have statewide elections that were strictly about criminal justice sentencing."  

In this frenzy, between 1984 and 1991, California passed more than 1,000 crime bills. Virtually none of them reduced sentences, and many of them imposed so-called "sentence enhancements." A sentence enhancement allows a judge to tack time onto a sentence for a number of reasons. "So you could have burglary, which has a base sentence of five years," explained Robert Weisberg, the director of Stanford's Criminal Justice Center, "you could add a number of years onto that sentence for the use of a gun, the particular time of day the crime was performed, a list of priors."

There are now more than one hundred enhancements written into California's penal code, and they have greatly increased prison terms across the board. But as people serve longer and longer prison stints, they also have less and less to do behind bars.

In the last two years alone, the state has slashed rehabilitation-oriented programs by $250 million, according to the California Department of Corrections. And that comes after a thirty-year divestment in prison rehabilitation. "What's happening is they taking gangbangers off the streets," said Bolar, who spent close to three decades in California prisons. "They putting them in a prison cell, but that's it! When they leave, they go right back to where they came from. They go right back to that house that's on fire. And if you think they ain't going to get burnt, you crazy."


Lifers like Bolar have much different prison experiences. Because of their indeterminate sentences, they need to work for their freedom, so they see prison psychiatrists, enroll in classes, and learn a trade — a self-imposed system of rehabilitation that seems to work. In contrast to California's high recidivism rate for most inmates, released lifers have only a 1 to 3 percent chance of returning to prison, and almost never for another violent crime, according to state statistics. Of the roughly 1,000 murderers who have been paroled over the past two decades, only 13 have re-offended, and the worst of those 13 crimes was burglary.

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