The day the prison build-up began

The California prison population grew 874 percent between 1977 and 2007.

The reason “why” involves a variety of complex factors. Yet, at the root lies one single day: July 1st, 1977. The day California switched from what’s called indeterminate sentencing to determinate sentencing. And if you’ll stick with me, I’ll explain them both.

This image is part of a larger, dynamic visualization putting the above numbers in context. Click here (or on the image) to view it in its entirety

The way it was
The California Department of Corrections (CDC) was founded in 1944. At the helm, the state placed 44-year-old Richard McGee.

McGee was fond of pointing out that, “less than two percent of those entering prison will die there”, and, in turn, he focused much of the mission of CDC around inmate rehabilitation and job training.

And though the punishment for not participating in such programs was strict, the real motivation for inmate cooperation lay in the principles of indeterminate sentencing:

Definition #1: Indeterminate sentencing
Indeterminate prison sentences are wide-ranging and flexible. So, when an offender is found guilty of a crime, the judge sentences them to prison for an indeterminate amount of time (like “2 to 16 years” or “7 years to life”). It is then up to the inmate to do what they can during their time behind bars to prove they’ve been “rehabilitated”, so that when they come before the parole board they can try and demonstrate they’ve earned the right to be set free.

What better reason to participate in reentry programs than the realization that, if you don’t, you might never again roam free?

California crime index, 1960-1980 (click to enlarge)

California crime index, 1960-1980 (click to enlarge)

Then came the 1960s…
Four million African Americans migrated from the South to the North and West between 1940 and 1970.

By the early ‘60s, the civil rights movement had begun to bubble. And then it boiled. An old way of life shattered and the splinters flew clear across the nation.

Amid the tension, race riots exploded in over 12 cities. Crime rates shot up. President Nixon said that, “the only way to attack crime in America is the way it attacks our people – without pity”. And Governor Reagan was elected on a promise to “send the welfare bums back to work”.

In the early 70s, California Sen. John Nejedly conducted research into the impact race had on indeterminate sentencing and was “shocked” to find that, “…what we were sentencing people for and the background of criminal statistics was arising on a very disparate basis… you found that blacks, for example, were arrested more often, were tried more often, were convicted more often…”

Meanwhile, concern over crime in California was skyrocketing, along with gang violence in L.A. and televised news coverage of the Manson family.

“The media story showed that there were monstrous killers all around us,” said Jonathon Simon, a Professor of criminology at UC Berkeley, “and made it seem like anyone could be a victim.”

“So, law enforcement started yelling and screaming about getting tough on crime,” said Ron Hayes, former Deputy Director of the California Youth Authority’s Prevention and Community Corrections branch. “They started talking about doing away with the indeterminate sentencing.”

It seemed no one was willing to trust the judgment of parole boards and judges. So in ’77, the switch was made:

Definition #2: Determinate sentencing
Determinate prison sentences are fixed and rigid. When an offender is found guilty, the judge chooses from a tight “triad” of sentences (for instance, 6,7 or 9 years). The inmate then serves that full sentence and the parole board cannot lower or raise it. In other words, if an inmate gets a six year sentence, it doesn’t matter if he spends those days learning to type or carving death threats into his knee, unless found guilty of another crime, he’s serving six years.1

California prisoner and parolee rates, 1960-2008 (click to enlarge)

California prisoner and parolee rates, 1960-2008
(click to enlarge)

The way it changed
The Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act explicitly abandoned the long-standing purpose of prison as rehabilitation. Punishment became CDC’s stated goal.

“There was no evidence that the state of the sciences enabled anyone to diagnose a criminal’s crime-causing problem, treat it, cure it or predict non-repetition”, wrote the act’s drafters.

Sentencing was moved from the hands of judges and parole boards to the hands of legislators. Consequently, between 1984 and 1991, the legislature passed over 1,000 crime bills.

A new era of “tough on crime” politics arose. And the prison population started to grow.

“In essence, (with determinate sentencing) they threw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Joan Petersilia, criminologist at Stanford U.

“And the answer for all of this was that we needed to build more prisons,” Hayes said. “And we built new prisons almost every day.”

1The Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act did include a clause allowing for something called “Good Time Credits”, meaning an offender’s prison term would be reduced by a total of one-third for good time. However, offenders didn’t have to do anything good to earn good time, they just had to stay away from misbehavior. Thus, not only did good time credits fail to encourage inmate rehabilitation, but they encouraged the early release of many potentially dangerous offenders.

Data sources:

  • California Prisoners & Parolees, 2008, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2009. Available here.
  • California Prisoners & Parolees, 1988, California Department of Corrections, 1989. Available here.
  • Historical Trends, 1987 – 2007, California Department of Corrections, July 2008. Available here.
  • Historical Trends: Institution and Parole Population, 1977-1997, California Department of Corrections, June 1998. Available here
  • Understanding Corrections, Joan Petersilia, California Policy Research Center, May, 2006. Available here.
Posted on by Luke Whyte |

One Response to The day the prison build-up began

  1. Lynn says:

    Are the people you quote saying that the change in sentencing is what caused the explosion or is it just a sign of the times we have been going through? Do you think it is the lack of rehabilitation that causes the growth in population or the climate of animosity between the law abiding and lawless? Just thoughts – I know no one knows these answers.

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