When LA Times reporter Paige St. John tweeted that private prison industry leader Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) stock took a nose dive after the federal judges announced they would give California two additional years to reduce the state prison population to 137% of design capacity, I took note. Bad news for the private prison shareholders usually means good news for criminal justice reformers. Back in October I received a cold call from an innocuous sounding firm that follows public policy issues that impact institutional investors. They explained that some of their clients were holders in Geo Group and CCA and they wanted to talk to me about criminal justice reform in California. After I recovered from the shock of being contacted by the enemy, I asked them what they wanted to know. They said they were “scratching their heads” on what was going on in California, and couldn’t understand “why Jerry Brown was such a friend” to the industry. They wanted to know from someone on the ground in the state if this was an aberration or if things could really be moving in such a positive direction in the golden state for their investors, given that the feds and most other states were terminating contracts and shuttering prisons.
It is true that statements from President Obama and Attorney General Holder over the past six months have indicated a substantial shift in the administration’s position on sentencing reform and other criminal justice system issues. They have publicly acknowledged the ugly truth of America’s system of mass incarceration and especially its disproportionate impact on Black and Latino communities of color, calling for reducing the grip of mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders and fairer sentencing across the board. And according to The Sentencing Project’s recent report, 17 states have reduced prison capacity since 2011, interestingly often the red states such as Texas, Florida and North Carolina taking the lead.
Unfortunately, despite the reaction of CCA shareholder to yesterday’s news, California can still be considered a leader in prison expansion at state and county levels. When Governor Jerry Brown unveiled his proposed 2014-2015 budget it included over $500 million in additional spending for private prison contracts, anticipating an additional 10,000 inmates over the next few years. This on top of the numerous contracts with Geo Group and CCA the Governor enacted in the last quarter of 2013. While the enormity of these numbers is shocking at its face value, stop for a moment to consider the humanity that underlies each number. Most prisoners in California are nonviolent offenders (primarily drug possession); they have done no harm to another person’s body or property. Think of the families impacted by the incarceration of their loved one, be it their child, parent or sibling; the trade-off in underfunding schools and elderly services; or the high taxes and fees we must pay.
Watching the encouraging news as state and federal officials from across the country embrace sentencing reform, investment in community based drug treatment and mental health, and pretrial diversion pilots, I realize California truly does exist in a bubble, uninterested and unaffected by the public policies outside of our borders. This makes the actions and laser focus attention of the three-judge federal panel on California’s unconstitutional prison practices ever more important and appreciated by reformers and all those who believe in a just criminal justice system. Despite the fact that Governor Brown’s appeals have been struck down twice by the Supreme Court and admonished repeatedly by the federal panel, he has continued to lodge appeals and stonewall reform.
Yesterday’s order extending the deadline to February 28 2016 for California to meet the reduction order, is the beginning of a new chapter for California prisons and a new opportunity for Jerry Brown to do the right thing. While, the judges expressed open frustration with Governor Brown’s actions, stating that “…California’s citizens have incurred far greater costs, both financial and otherwise, as a result of defendants’ heretofore unyielding resistance to compliance with this Court’s orders,” they also relayed a belief that with this extension the Governor will finally actually implement measures that will result in a durable solution to prison overcrowding. I hope they are right.
Lynne Lyman is the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.