Crowded Prisons, Unions, and California Three Strikes: Why We Can't Just Build More Cages


"Where other states are investing resources in, 'How do we help these people not come back into the prison system?,' California is not," says Adrian Moore, Vice President of Research at Reason Foundation. 

The United States locks up more prisoners than any other country. And in the country holding the most prisoners in the world, California is the state that incarcerates more people than any other. California's prisons are so overcrowded that the Supreme Court ruled them in violation of the Eighth Amendment's "cruel and unusual punishment" clause. 

Moore and others lay much of the blame at the feet of California's powerful prison guard union, the California Correction Peace Officer's Association (CCPOA), which is unrelenting in its advocacy for tough-on-crime laws, including California Three Strikes, under which any third-time felon can receive a 25-year to life sentence, even if the crime is not a violent, "serious felony (PDF)."

California voters have a chance to reform Three Strikes this year by voting for Prop 36, which would allow Third Strikers convicted of non-serious, nonviolent crimes to appeal for a sentence reduction. More than 3,500 Third Strikers were sentenced for a non-violent, non-serious crime, and of these, more than 1,300 were sentenced for drug-related offenses (PDF). CCPOA, which has donated money to stopping similar reforms in the past, has stayed relatively silent this time around, but another lobbying group, the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) has stepped up with a $100,000 donation to an anti-Prop 36 campaign. 

"We do lobby for stronger laws on the book that we can use to put people away, because these are people that are preying on the citizens of California," says Ron Cottingham, president of PORAC. 

But with prisons overcrowding, recidivism high, and local jails facing troubles of their own, some sort of reform will need to happen, says Moore, though he doesn't expect a viable solution to be offered by the unions any time soon. 

"[The unions] are following their own self-interest," says Moore, "which is to have the prison system in California continue to be large and to grow over time, and they have been very successful at that." 

Approximately 6 minutes.

Written and produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Mark Wagner, Sharif Matar and Weissmueller. Music by Krackatoa and Lee Rosevere.

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