California has a troubled history surrounding its criminal justice system. As recent as October, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that all but two of its prison centers were packed over their designed capacities.
But throughout the last decade, the state has implemented more rehabilitative criminal justice policies to solve its long-standing problems of overcrowded prisons and high incarceration levels. Among these is Proposition 47, which was passed in 2014 and reduced crimes, such as shoplifting or writing faulty checks, from felonies to misdemeanors. There is also Proposition 57, which passed November 2016 and offers inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes early-release credits for good behavior, or for pursuing degrees or GED diplomas.
However, groups, such as the California Public Safety Partnership, hold these measures culpable for increases in recent statewide crime trends. An initiative sponsored by the group that could appear on the November 2018 ballot calls for harsher treatment of inmates and a rollback of some of the recent propositions. These changes include stricter parole-hearing requirements, reclassification of more crimes as “violent,” stronger theft laws and more comprehensive DNA collection during arrests. The initiative was submitted in late October and will have to gather enough signatures to appear on next year’s ballot.
The initiative’s line items aren’t the right approach to the California justice system’s problems. The initiative would disincentivize inmate education programs and needlessly make early release on parole more difficult. A more rehabilitative penal system that provides opportunities for incarcerated individuals to reintegrate into society, rather than an overly aggressive one, would be more effective in reducing prison populations.
The initiative’s justification for new theft laws begins with the statistical observation that property crime rates have soared since 2014. However, the 2014 violent crime rate was the lowest since 1960, the first year such records were kept. Experts at the Public Policy Institute of California, an organization that researches the impact of policy changes, speculated this was due to the changes brought on by Proposition 47, such as police spending less time on crimes newly classified as misdemeanors, thus leading to lower arrest rates.
The initiative also cites fluctuations in property crime rates as reason for classifying more crimes as violent. But the cited increases in theft and other nonviolent crimes might be a red herring. A study published by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice noted that there was a high variation in property crime rates across state counties. The center deduced that local law enforcement practices likely had a bigger impact on these rates than statewide policies. This means proponents for criminal justice reform would do better to bolster local efforts in high-intensity crime areas than to seek state policy reform.
Proponents of expanding California’s list of violent crimes also use violent crime statistics as justification for their stance. The initiative blames “recent changes to parole laws” for the violent crime rate, which saw an increase in 2016. But it’s a little early for Proposition 57 to be blamed, since it was passed in November 2016 and the proposition’s effects are only reflected in a few months of the CDCR’s data.
Furthermore, reclassifying more crimes as violent robs some inmates of Proposition 57′s option for them to earn an early release through education. This is in spite of studies into prison education programs, such as those by Virginia Tech, Northwestern University School of Law and the University of San Francisco, which report significant decreases in recidivism rates among inmates who received an education. Getting an education provides increased employment opportunities for inmates, allowing them to stabilize their financial situation and to get a second chance at life – making them less likely to turn to crime again.
Allison Lopez, a program coordinator for the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison, a nonprofit that provides funding for the city’s prison education programs, said such programs give inmates opportunities to interact beyond otherwise close-knit ethnic or racial groups in the prison, helping them overcome any pre-existing cultural or racial biases. She added that while it was still too early to formally gauge the effect of Proposition 57 on educational rates, she noticed some individuals were prompted to be more forward-thinking and to plan for their futures after their release because of the change.
Romarilyn Ralston, program coordinator for Project Rebound at California State University, Fullerton, said she hadn’t noticed an increase in students due to Proposition 57 because the program accepted students regardless of the level of their crime. She did stress, however, the importance of prison education programs and parole opportunities in general.
“There was a dark period in California history where (former Gov. Gray Davis) and (former Gov. Pete Wilson) had no parole policies,” she said. “It would be sad to see California go back and undo a lot of the progress made in the last 15 or 20 years with creating a more humane justice system.”
It might seem a little ridiculous that, under current law, horrific crimes such as rape of an unconscious person, assault with a deadly weapon or battery of an officer aren’t deemed violent. However, voters should bear in mind the term is a legal designation, separate from the literal definition of the word. Reclassification has a real impact on an incarcerated person’s ability to get back on their feet and could turn into an excuse for inmates to abstain from rehabilitative programs. Adding to the list of violent crimes betrays a punitive attitude toward people who need the opposite.
California needs to continue employing a rehabilitative methodology to criminal justice. The initiative to classify more violent crimes, though based on understandably worrying fluctuations in data, poses the chance of exacerbating prison overcrowding and inmate recidivism. Voters would do well to avoid signing it.
California needs to help incarcerated persons learn from their mistakes by not repeating its own.