In the past two years, California prisons have been shutting down due to the decline of inmate count with both less people entering prison and many finishing their sentences. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state prisoner's population dropped from 122,000 to 94,500 in 2020, a total of 23 percent. However, the congestion inside prisons is not an ending dilemma.
Prisoners from Kern Valley State Prison for example, have expressed intense concerns of the dangers of living with those who are capable of murder while in the maximum-security unit. Plus with the requirement of staying in a cell for the majority of the day, the idea of a place that is beyond capacity and the numerous deaths happening in the facility, it is a territory that can be dominated by a different person each day.
Read more here about overpopulation in Kern Valley State Prison: Tragic Overcrowding at Kern Valley State Prison — Prison Journalism Project
This issue isn't just being initiated at the prisons themselves, it's how the justice system doesn't make reentry an easy and helpful process and how offenses are intensely criminalized. These factors result into high recidivism rates, harsher penalties for low offense, and failure to completely community supervision or mandated courses. The “War on Drugs” is also a leading gateway into incarceration to this day, severely impacting low-income and communities of color.
Sentencing can be extended or mostly served in prison. Elimination of “good time” and making truth in sentencing to be served completely either in prison or on parole. Legislation on alternatives to incarceration has been a battle to get passed and deemed active in both the court system and prison protocol. More budgeting has always been attempted to make crime an acceptable punitive field with no accountability from officials. With a lesser yet substantial resource in prisons, reservations, and funding for prisons are not made for serious, violent, and repeat offenders.
Poor infrastructure and a lack of an accurate population projection and offender needs analysis, with community correction options must be reviewed first to determine flow into and out of prison system. An adequate plan for new facilities must include accurate projection of total offender population.
Here are layered approaches in reducing prison overcrowding, provided by Penal Reform International:
- Collect and use data to inform a rational, humane, and cost-effective use of prison:
Creating and obtaining a census of the prison population to know who is in prison and why they are in prison, making the process of reducing congestion much simpler. This critical information can mobilize strong advocacy about why prison does not apply to all individuals who have been impacted by the system. More policies can be established, and the public should be able to be notified about these measures being taken in.
- Divert and minor cases out of the criminal justice system:
To ensure that prisons play their proper role, including the role of rehabilitation, it is important that minor offences be processed in different ways. As long as basic human rights are observed, such processes can have an important role to play.
- Review and reform the criminal justice process as a whole from arrest to release and invest in crime prevention and reduction:
Reducing prison numbers is not simply a question of establishing measures which can act as direct alternatives to pre-trial detention or sentences, although these are important. It involves the development and use of a wide range of methods to prevent crime through social and situational measures and of ways to resolve harms and disputes without recourse to criminal law, for example by using informal and restorative justice approaches.
- Improve access to justice and case management during pre-trial detention:
Efforts to address the problem of lengthy pre-trial detention include:
- increasing legal aid and assistance and supplementing this by making use of paralegals to provide advice to defendants;
- enforcing time limits in criminal proceedings;
- offering bail and other alternatives to pre-trial detention;
- holding ‘camp courts' inside prisons; and
- reforming criminal procedure so that cases are reviewed regularly and brought to a conclusion more speedily.
- Consider alternative arrangements for parents with dependent children, particularly mothers with babies:
Sentencing courts should have enough information to enable them to balance society's and the child's interests, and for them to consider (and have available to them) community-based options.
Other methods that can be in adjunct to reducing prison congestion include identifying mental illness and drug addiction and divert those affected to appropriate medical or other care, making special arrangement for children and young offenders, develop opportunities for parole or other forms of early release and assist prisoners on release to prevent their return to prison, and reducing sentencing lengths and ensure consistent sentencing practices.