Prop 57 has the potential to bring substantial change to CA’s criminal justice system. Prop 57 known as the “CA parole for non-violent criminals and juvenile court trial requirements initiative” passed by an overwhelming majority last November. The measure increases the chances of parole for inmates in state prison convicted of nonviolent crimes and expands opportunities to earn credits for good behavior. Relaxing parole rules will further alleviate prison overcrowding through the early release of up to 11,500 inmates over the next 4 years.
The juvenile justice system, often overlooked despite its prickly tentacles, is also addressed in Prop 57. Historically the mission of juvenile courts has been diversionary in nature rather than overtly punitive. The logic follows as such: Kids make dumb mistakes but deserve second chances because they are kids (one would be hard pressed to find other examples of common sense policies like this in the criminal justice system). The ethos of the juvenile justice system however was punctuated when charging authority was transferred from judges to prosecutors in the latter half of the twentieth century. By design prosecutors are not concerned with leniency. Prop 57 corrects this crucial mistake by restoring judicial discretion in allowing judges to decide if they want to waive jurisdiction and transfer defendants over 14 to adult courts.
Prop 57’s impact will fall heavily on the shoulders of CDCR. It remains uncertain whether Corrections has the immediate capacity (a pessimist might say will) to provide effective rehabilitation programs. Developing and implementing new credit programs will undoubtedly take time, but new prison admission rates suggest CA can’t afford the luxury of patience. Since 2009 CA prison populations have declined by roughly 41,000. At 113,700 the current population is almost 2,200 below the court imposed cap of staying under 137.5% design capacity. But since early 2016 the statewide prison population has been increasing on average of more than 200 new inmates each month. If this rate continues CDCR could find itself in hot water as the population will surge above the court-mandated target by late 2017.
To deal with this pressing matter Prop 57 has delivered CDCR two primary tools. Inmates serving time for ‘non-violent’ felonies will be eligible for parole after serving the full term for their primary offenses, without having to serve time for additional sentencing enhancements like gang membership or prior felonies. But it remains unclear what specific crimes will make inmates ineligible for this early parole feature. As faithful readers of this blog know nearly 60% of CA inmates are incarcerated on violent crime charges, so if this feature is only available to a limited number of inmates it wont achieve much traction.
Secondly, and more importantly, Prop 57 gives CDCR authority to expand awarding credits for good behavior and educational & rehabilitative achievements. This will surely help to reduce the surging prison populations, but also provides the added bonus of incentivizing early release based on completion of rehabilitative programs. As inmates work these programs it will certainly help to mitigate recidivism rates by better preparing inmates for reentry. 2/3rds of CA inmates released from prison are rearrested within two years, which perpetuates a revolving door of prison admission and re-admission.
It remains to be seen how effective CDCR will be in implementing Prop 57. But among all the uncertainty one feature of Prop 57 is crystal clear: CA is being pushed to evaluate and implement effective programs that help inmates prepare for successful reentry into the community.