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California's prisons are some of the most crowded in the country read more

California's prisons are some of the most crowded in the country


  1. Address overcrowding
  2. Maintain public health
  3. Propose alternative means of corrections
  4. Reduce the overall prison population by 10,000 by 2014

The Problem

As of November 2011, the California prison system had 143,643 prisoners housed in a system designed to hold 84,000. Inmates are housed in 34 separate facilities, not including private prisons under contract by the state housed in other parts of the United States or any juvenile-specific facilities. This overcrowding has led to exceptionally high rates of prison violence, poor health conditions, cost overruns, abuses by correctional officers and a rise in organized gang violence, both in and outside of the system. California inmates are also 80% more likely to attempt suicide than the national average.

Legal Ramifications

In 2010, California was ordered by a special court to reduce its overall prison population by 40,000 inmates or face federal oversight and fines. The decision, which was decided in the case Ralph Coleman v. Arnold Schwarzenegger, et al. and later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision, found that the overcrowded conditions in California prisons were so bad as to constitute "cruel and unusual" punishment. In writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy described the conditions, which often put hundreds of inmates together in a gymnasium-style room with stacked bunk beds and sometimes no access to bathrooms, as deplorable:

"A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society." 

—Justice Kennedy

He further stated that it was “an uncontested fact” that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”

Recent Updates (2013)

On June 21, 2013, a court reaffirmed a previous decision compelling the state of California to further reduce its prison population by an additional 10,000 inmates by Dec. 31. The court ruled that if the state of California cannot comply with this mandate through existing measures (shifting inmates to county jails and contracting with out-of-state private prisons), then the state would be forced to begin releasing low-level offenders.


From 1982 to 2000, California's prison population increased 500%. To accommodate this population growth stemming from the national War on Drugs, the state of California built 23 new prisons at a cost of $280-$350 million apiece. By way of comparison, during the 112-year-long period between 1852 and 1964, the state of California had constructed just 12 prisons. California's prisons are public and are financed by the Public Works Department and operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The state funds the prison system's annual costs. In 2005 the state rate of incarceration was 616 per 100,000 adults, or about .6%.

Tough on Crime and the Three Strikes Law

Passed via ballot initiative in 1994, the Three Strikes Law serves to punish repeat offenders with increasing severity by establishing mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses (mainly felonies). While existing in other states, California's Three Strikes Law mandates a sentence of 25 years to life in prison for committing three felonies, with higher sentences being weighted towards more violent crimes.

While the effects of this law on violent crime have been disputed, with some jurisdictions reporting a slight decrease in the rate of violent crime and others reporting no impact whatsoever, the impact on the state's prison system has been to increase the total rate of incarceration. Furthermore, many critics contend that because of the way the law was written and passed, it disproportionately affects non-violent drug offenders and people of color.

Proposition 36

California Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, was an initiative statute that permanently changed state law to allow qualifying defendants convicted of non-violent drug possession offenses to receive a probationary sentence in lieu of incarceration. As a condition of probation, defendants are required to participate in and complete a licensed and/or certified community drug treatment program.

The proposition was passed with 6,233,422 (60.86%) votes in favor and 4,009,508 (39.14%) against on Nov. 7, 2000 and went into effect on July 1, 2001 with $120 million for treatment services allocated annually for five years.

Lawsuits and Controversy

In 2010, in the consolidated cases of Plata v. Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, a three-judge panel found that the medical and mental health conditions in California's prisons to be so inhumane that they violated the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as the terms of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a response to alleged unconstitutional mental health care by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

The court then mandated that the state of California reduce its overall prison population by roughly 40,000 inmates or face compulsory action by the federal government. The state submitted a plan for implementation on Nov. 12, 2009, which was accepted and entered as an order of the court on Jan. 12, 2010. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision later that year on a 5-4 decision. The original case had been filed in 1990.

Shift from State to Local

In 2011, Gov.Jerry Brown approved a measure that would significantly shift the burden of maintaining non-violent and disabled prisoners from the state prison system to county jails. According to, "It is the cornerstone of California’s solution for reducing the number of inmates in the state’s 33 prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity by June 27, 2013, as ordered by the Three-Judge Court and affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court." No inmates currently in state prison have been or will be transferred to county jails or released early.

Additionally, in November 2012, California voters approved Gov. Brown’s Proposition 30, which created a constitutional amendment that protected ongoing funding to the counties for realignment. The amendment prohibits the legislature from reducing or removing funding to the counties.

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  • Fred Keeley
    Santa Cruz County Treasurer and former State Assembly Member
  • Pete Biggam
    Digital Signage Factory