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.


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  1. California is, traditionally, seen as a liberal state

    It’s not a liberal state. It’s a progressive or leftist state. The gulf between those two things is as wide as the universe.

    There are no fucking liberals, mmkay? The only liberals today are classic liberals, aka libertarians.

    1. Appropriation of words, control of the dialogue, building the narrative, that is what proggies do. They have to do it because if they came right out and plainly said what they want they would be rejected and they know it. Hell, how long has it been since they could openly call themselves progressives without having rocks thrown at them?

      They can only sell their policies by deception. See: “If you like your plan you can keep your plan. If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor.”

      1. Anyone mind if I add Barney Frank to my list of people I wish would just quietly disappear from public view?

        FMR. REP. BARNEY FRANK (D-MA): ….. A crisis occurred, a terrible one in 2008, that was really brought about by Republican policies more than anything else, although there was some shared blame, the total deregulation and the resistance to any regulation. And the Democrats had the responsibility of cleaning it up.

        ….. here is the problem with the economy, and it’s a vicious cycle for the Democrats. It’s the increasing inequality. Yes, we have the best economy in the developed world by a significant margin but very little of that is being felt by the average person. And in fact I think for people’s income who have been frozen and who have not seen their own situation improve, they almost get angry when they hear things are good. So we’re in a vicious cycle. People are blaming government because they’re not getting a part of this prosperity. So they then vote for the people who are determined to make sure that the government doesn’t do anything that would share things more equally.

        1. “People are blaming government because they’re not getting a part of this prosperity.”

          So ‘people’ aren’t quite as stupid as Harry hopes?
          I’m happy to hear that.

          1. Harry?

            1. Oh, oh, look! Bo found a mistake! How
              Yes, Barney, not Harry Reid. Happy, now, twit?

        2. Like all of their issues, inequality is a canard. Every single one of their issues is manufactured from thin air for the express purpose of being an issue.

          The Dems and specifically that fat fuck Frank are mostly responsible for the economic disaster we still haven’t recovered from. He repeatedly lied and said everything was just peachy right up until the real estate market collapsed, collapsed from policies that he personally was responsible for.

          You want him to quietly disappear? I want him to have a stroke, shit himself and turn into a vegetable.

          1. Is this the theory that the real estate market collapsed because the Democrats bullied banks into lending money to black people who couldn’t repay their loans?

            1. money to black people who couldn’t repay

              It is the theory that the gov’t coerced banks to dole out loans that the signers, regardless of race, could not actually afford.

              The race card is way overused. Try using something else.

            2. Hey, Barney Frank: The Government Did Cause the Housing Crisis

              Congressman Frank, of course, blamed the financial crisis on the failure adequately to regulate the banks. In this, he is following the traditional Washington practice of blaming others for his own mistakes. For most of his career, Barney Frank was the principal advocate in Congress for using the government’s authority to force lower underwriting standards in the business of housing finance. Although he claims to have tried to reverse course as early as 2003, that was the year he made the oft-quoted remark, “I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation toward subsidized housing.” Rather than reversing course, he was pressing on when others were beginning to have doubts.

              His most successful effort was to impose what were called “affordable housing” requirements on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 1992. Before that time, these two government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) had been required to buy only mortgages that institutional investors would buy–in other words, prime mortgages–but Frank and others thought these standards made it too difficult for low income borrowers to buy homes. The affordable housing law required Fannie and Freddie to meet government quotas when they bought loans from banks and other mortgage originators.

            3. Did the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) Lead to Risky Lending?

              Yes, it did. We use exogenous variation in banks’ incentives to conform to the standards of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) around regulatory exam dates to trace out the effect of the CRA on lending activity. Our empirical strategy compares lending behavior of banks undergoing CRA exams within a given census tract in a given month to the behavior of banks operating in the same census tract-month that do not face these exams. We find that adherence to the act led to riskier lending by banks: in the six quarters surrounding the CRA exams lending is elevated on average by about 5 percent every quarter and loans in these quarters default by about 15 percent more often. These patterns are accentuated in CRA-eligible census tracts and are concentrated among large banks. The effects are strongest during the time period when the market for private securitization was booming.

            4. Bo Cara Esq.|11.8.14 @ 9:34PM|#
              “Is this the theory that the real estate market collapsed because the Democrats bullied banks into lending money to black people who couldn’t repay their loans?”

              No, Bo, it is a statement that the Fed Gov screwed with the mortgage market in many ways until they found how far you can distort a market until it fails.
              If you had an IQ higher than “stupid”, I’d guess you knew that and were being ‘cute’.
              As it is, I’ll assume you’re both stupid and willing to show it.

              1. I’ve never put much stock in the idea that the CARE act was the primary driver (though I agree it’s an example of immoral government meddling which played a part in the collapse) because it operated for decades before the collapse. I think Fed policy and assurances of bailouts incentivized and combined with shortsighted greed on the part of many private actors.

        3. the total deregulation

          You have to be completely, and utterly disingenuous to spout this crap.

          So they then vote for the people who are determined to make sure that the government doesn’t do anything that would share things more equally.

          Because, in a free society, the government should definitely be in the business of making sure things are “fair” by stealing from some to give to others.

        4. Here’s Barney Frank denying there’s a crisis and asking for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to do more to create affordable housing:

          Even McCain figured it out.

          1. asking for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to do more to create affordable housing

            He should try to find a little altruism in his tiny, black heart and fund an “affordable housing project”, himself. Land Development is a thing, and he has the financial backing to pursue this in a private setting. To me, it is telling that he does not.

            1. There is a constant lefty push for ‘affordable housing’ in SF. It is bullshit; SF housing is affordable as anyone who watches the RE market can tell you. Housing rarely stays on the market for more than two weeks; someone buys it, so it is by definition, “affordable”.
              What they want is “subsidized” housing, but they’re not nearly honest enough to admit it.

              1. they’re not nearly honest enough to admit it.

                They are also not decent enough to fund it, themselves, voluntarily.

                1. A columnist in the local rag made a big deal that the developer of a new building set aside 20% as ‘affordable housing’ rather than the 12% required by law.
                  I didn’t waste the band-width emailing him to point out that it means 10% fewer people subsidizing the endeavor. Nor that it was zero cost to the developer and got (obviously) good press (the columnist has been ‘hooked’ before).
                  Again, there is no problem with ‘affordable housing’; there is a problem with people who somehow want to live where they can’t afford to do so.
                  I, for one, wouldn’t mind an ocean-side 4-bedroom in Malibu, but I’ll bet the lefties living there aren’t interested in making sure I can do so.

    2. “There are no fucking liberals, mmkay? ”

      I wouldn’t say that. What would you call the people in the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) or the ACLU, for example?

  2. California isn’t going to lead on anything that includes decreasing public sector jobs. The only voter initiative that’s going to work is electing a completely different government, one not beholden to its workers.

    1. California isn’t going to lead on anything

      No? How about on chasing businesses out of the state?

  3. Is thin privilege the most ridiculous example of left-wing victimhood?

    4. The dominant group has the power to define and name reality.

    That is, they determine the status quo: what is “normal,” “real,” or “correct.”

    Take a look at (almost) any store window mannequins or fashion magazine. If thinness is heralded as the status quo, then that continues to put thin people in positions of power when it comes to determining what “average” (or “preferable”) is.

    When you have hurt feelings ? legitimate as they are ? it isn’t the result of subjugation.

    The negative attitudes toward you as a privileged person aren’t pervasive, restricting, or hierarchal.

    We need to stop thinking of skinny-shaming as reverse discrimination.

    White devil. Cis scum. Breeders.

    Often, as social justice activists, we use general statements against oppressive groups in order to call into question their power.

    And while we have have an entire discussion ? or, hey, another article written ? about whether or not these pejoratives advance our movements or benefit disenfranchised groups, what I want to focus on here is this: These generalizations are often used by marginalized groups to combat the oppressive structures that they represent.


    1. Once again feminist writer admits to being emotionally unbalanced;

      “I’m a body image activist who attempts to work in solidarity with the fat acceptance movement, an eating disorder survivor who still harbors body and food issues,”

      A body image activist. *shakes head slowly*

      1. body image activist

        ‘Tha fuck? Has the general social acceptance of others succeeded so well in the US that the nexus of social activism now revolves around how a person feels about themselves?

  4. “How did an ostensibly liberal state like California become one of the worst overincarcerators in the nation?”

    People forget California’s history with socialism. Upton Sinclair and his EPIC campaign came within a hair’s breadth of becoming an outright socialist state completely controlled by Labour unions had it not been for FDR’s 11th hour surprise pullback in his endorsement.

    California has been a hotbed of the creepiest Labour union corruption ever since. California’s “liberal” image merely comes from good weather and beaches which attract an entertainment contingency which often is “liberal”. But the people interested and ORGANIZED enough to achieve power are the heirs of the EPIC movement that was very strong in the 1930s. Those groups didn’t just evaporate into the ether. They stayed and what we see in California today is the result of their constant and unrelenting local action in California politics.

    1. Merriman crushed Sinclair, and six of the subsequent governors of California were Republicans, including probably the most important conservative politician of the century.

      1. California governors have little real power. The real power is in the legislature. Same for Texas.

      2. Don’t let his loss in a winner take all system goad you into believing that Sinclair’s successful primary run for the democratic party didn’t have a major impact.

        “Partly as a result of the EPIC movement, in 1934 Democratic voter registration surpassed Republican registration in California for the first time in the twentieth century. Sinclair’s vote total was larger than the primary vote for his Republican opponent, Governor Frank Merriam.”

        Sinclair was the future of California politics.

  5. Proposal: A law can always be deleted by ballot initiative, but a law can never be added by same.

    1. A law can always be deleted by ballot initiative, but a law can never be added by same.

      I would favor this. As it stands, I read every ballot initiative as “Should Socrates be killed for corrupting the youth?” and vote no.

      The tyranny of the majority is no more just than any other tyranny, even if they are not goring your goat just this moment.

      If you listen to fools, the Mob rules

  6. Three strikes should have never included drugs. As far as violent crimes go three strikes is too many.

  7. Moonbeam vetoed that bill because the last thing in the world he ever wants to do is reduce government spending.


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