How Voters, Not Politicians, Are Reforming California's Harsh Sentencing Laws


California voters approved a sweeping change to sentencing on Tuesday by passing Proposition 47 and knocking most drug possession and "petty theft" charges down from felonies to a misdemeanors. Only months earlier, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed similar, and more modest, changes to California's sentencing laws, claiming that the state's plan to "realign" convicts from state prisons to county jails required more time to fully take effect.

This is not the first time California voters have routed around the obstinate political establishment to address the state's massive prison overcrowding problem. In 2012, voters amended the state's longstanding Three Strikes law to allow resentencing of nonviolent, nonserious third strikes. 

How did an ostensibly liberal state like California become one of the worst overincarcerators in the nation? Watch the video above for an inside look at the messy politics behind prison reform.

The story was originally published on Oct 24, 2014. The original text is below:

"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," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority in a Supreme Court ruling against Governor Jerry Brown and the state of California in the 2011 case Brown v. Plata.

The Supreme Court had just affirmed what lower courts had been telling California for decades: The prisons are too crowded. It's time to fix the problem.

Three years later, after several extensions asked for and granted, California's government has managed to reduce the prison population, but not by enough to meet the 137.5 percent of occupational capacity target set by the courts. But they are close enough, at 140 percent, to give Gov. Brown the confidence to declare victory.

"The prison emergency is over in California," Brown said at a press conference in 2013. "It is now time to return the control of our prison system to California."

Brown's strategy to combat overcrowding has been twofold: Send inmates to out-of-state and/or private prisons, and shift low-level offenders down to county jails. Predictably, this latter strategy, called "realignment," has led to an increase in the county jail populations. 

"Rather dramatically, overnight, [realignment] changed the makeup of our jails," says Orange County assistant sheriff Steve Kea.

But Brown has been particularly resistant to one type of change: sentencing reform. While California's voters amended the state's Three Strikes law in 2012, without the governor's endorsement, Brown has taken public stances against further reforms, such as SB 649, which would have given prosecutors the flexibility to prosecute nonviolent drug crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

"California is, traditionally, seen as a liberal state," says Lauren Galik, Director of Criminal Justice Reform at Reason Foundation. "But not when it comes to their sentencing laws and prison population."

For years, the California Correctional Peace Officer's Association (CCPOA), the prison guard union, has been one of the most powerful political forces in the state. It was a key player in the campaign to implement Three Strikes, and against the later failed campaign to repeal it. In 2010, the union poured more than $2 million in independent expenditures into Jerry Brown's gubernatorial campaign. Lynne Lyman, state director of the California Drug Policy Alliance, says that the enormous lobbying power of the law enforcement unions has hampered serious reform in the state and nationwide.

"It really doesn't matter which party an elected official is with," says Lyman. "The contributions that are coming in from the law enforcement associations and the private prison lobby… they're tremendous."

Watch the video above for a deeper dive into the politics of California's prisons, featuring interviews with state prison officials, local sheriffs, and former inmates.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Tracy Oppenheimer, Alexis Garcia, William Neff, and Weissmueller. Photography by Todd Krainin. Music by Chris Zabriskie. Approximately 9 minutes.