Is California Reducing Prison Overcrowding Without Fixing Its Cause?

birdcageSince October 1st, many of us have been wondering how the Public Safety Realignment Act will impact local communities. What will happen with a sudden influx of newly released prisoners?

For those unfamiliar with Realignment, it is the set of solutions California will use to reduce the number of inmates in the state’s 33 prisons.

This issue was the topic of an ACLU Chapter forum and, no doubt, other discussions — particularly in the Southland as state prison inmates return to Los Angeles County at a higher rate than other California counties.

As the chair of the Communications Committee of the ACLU Pasadena-Foothills Chapter, I was one of the moderators the forum along with my husband, Dick Price.

As I prepared to moderate and re-familiarize myself with this issue, I came across several videos and articles that led to feelings of agitation – so much so that I decided to write about my observations with the hope that my writing will prompt a healthy discussion in this article’s comments section and maybe lead some of you to post this on Facebook.

Let me begin by giving a little background.

In March 2011, a group of organizations that included the LA Progressive sponsored a talk by award-winning author Michelle Alexander. Considering her book’s popularity and her impressive credentials, which include a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University, a Juris Doctor from Stanford, and a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, Michelle Alexander was a great “get” for us and our audience.

Unsurprisingly, the event’s organizers were thrilled: Alexander delivered a flawless, compelling, and passionate presentation to an overflow crowd at Pasadena’s main library. Dozens of questions were asked, the book signing line snaked clear across the lobby, and lots of Alexander’s books sold.

The gathering was a coup on all fronts but one – the 200 plus audience was almost exclusively African-American, with just a smattering of Latinos and so few whites you could count them on both hands. To me, this was a major disappointment. As my husband whispered to me midway through, “She’s preaching to the choir.”

Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, lays out the case that our sentencing policies disproportionately and unjustly result in the over-incarceration of a particular demographic, poor Black and Brown men. In her view, we are creating a population of felons who would not have been deemed felons had we not created the war on drugs, established new laws, and then instituted a practice of selective enforcement. A writer for the Chicago Reader summed this up nicely: “People all over Chicago smoke pot—but almost everyone busted for it is black.” This practice has translated into an unprecedented explosion of the prison population, with California leading the way.

Filled beyond capacity for more than 15 years, our state correctional facilities are so grossly overcrowded that the Supreme Court called the conditions cruel and unusual punishment. Declaring that California was causing “needless suffering and death,” the high court then did something truly unprecedented by ordering California to conduct massive inmate releases. When you consider that this decision was handed down by the John Robert’s court – one of the most conservative in recent memory — you understand how serious the problem had become yet it continues to be treated with callous disregard by mainstream media.

In a surprising departure from the norm, on January 12, 2012 New Yorker Magazine ran a piece entitled, The Caging of America: Why Do We Lock Up So Many People. In it, writer Adam Gopnik states, “Six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S. – more than were in Stalin’s gulags.” He goes on to say that, “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.”

In a relatively short period of time, our nation has incarcerated enough people to create the second largest city in the United States. According to Alexander, the prison population has quintupled in less than 30 years. Yet this phenomenon doesn’t warrant sufficient interest to get more than a dozen white people to attend a Michelle Alexander talk.

However, when the discussion turns to the release of many of these inmates — most of them certainly Black and Brown men — the audience’s complexion likely gets decidedly whiter.

On October 1, 2011, California took the first of several incremental steps to carry out the U.S. Supreme Court order by releasing the first group of the three types of offenders that will be released

  • non-violent offenders;
  • non-sex offenders; and
  • non-serious offenders

In a League of Women Voters forum, Brian Biery of the Flintridge Center — one of the organizers who also sponsored the Michelle Alexander talk — faced a shockingly large, mostly white, crowd. Unprepared for the turnout, Biery didn’t have enough handouts to go around.  In what may be another sign of overwhelming public interest in this topic,  the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation produced  a series of publications focusing on the realignment and made them available to the public.

Many years ago, I had a friend who idealized the so-called “Founding Fathers” — you know, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the boys — almost to the point of worship. When I pointed out that many of them were slaveowners and that their refusal to end slavery at the founding of this nation led to continued suffering and the death of untold millions, he maintained that we can’t judge them using contemporary norms.

I argued that what we saw in them is what we see today — something that Martin Luther King Jr. called callous indifference to the suffering of people we view as “others.”

sharon kyle

A century and half from now, I wonder if people will look at what Adam Gopnik likens to modern-day slavery — our prison-industrial complex — and shake their heads in wonder at the callous indifference demonstrated by most people today particularly in California where we spend more on prisons than on higher education.

But more than anything I hope the Realignment forums lead to meaningful discussions and raise question about the  policies that have led to United States being dubbed “Incarceration Nation”.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive


aclu newly released prisoners


  1. says

    Released from a cage to what .. Sounds kind of like  The old line ,” out of the pan , into the fire ” .  I keep hearing  the grand statement , America the land of the free ..  Free to do what?
      We live in a country  which has more people than jobs .  What kind of  prospects do people , who aren’t the best & the brightest have. I think that we all need to take an honest look  at the situation ..
        In the 56 years that I’ve been on Earth , the lowest unemployment figures I’ve seen  have been 6% .   That number is a contrived figure .. The rate of joblessness has always been at least twice that figure ..
       Does it really take a great leap of thought to understand that society  was set up  in order that the strongest among us have the ability to protect and serve the weakest , in fact this is how great cultures maintain greatness.
      It’s sad to see people of great wealth & power look upon  those with no means as though they are a burden to be scorned .. What kind of fools think that by holding food , shelter , and health services is going to make a society that can sustain any kind of stability  ?
      We as fellow countrymen need to stand  and demand  that we all live on this land . Every person who is here deserves the dignity of the strongest among us ..

  2. says

    We will have a police state that arrests non-violent offenders for crimes that aren’t really crimes for as long as we allow Jerry Brown to sit as governor. The legislature uses prisons and jails as a means by which to finance the bureaucracy. They use it for job creation and the $1.8 million that Brown took from CCPOA dictates his loyalty to the prison guards. There are 3 million people related to a state prisoner or someone on probation/parole. All we need to take him out is 6500 workers and 6500 ordinary people who will put up a few dollars so that we can get the special interests out of our government.  Please support the campaign Liberals to Recall Jerry Brown,   After 15 years of writing to puppets owned by the guards, protesting at the Capitol, filing lawsuits and working on initiative campaigns, it is clear that The People (you) need to help with the organizing work. There are many fine people who would make a better Governor than Brown!

  3. Hwood007 says

    If a child can not stay in school and pass on to the next grade then they turn to the streets to make money as few can find employment without an education.

    Making money on the street leads young people to a life of crime.  The county north of mine uses the drop out rate as a yard stick as to how many new jail cells they will need in the future and it seems to work.

    Parents, single or otherwise, and teachers need to keep these children in school. Try to make them productive and make tax payers out of them.  Churchs could nelp and offer after school teaching programs to help failing students. 

    My grand father taught at a school for wayward boys.  The young men lived on campus, worked there, slept there, and had their meals there. They were taught a trade so that at age 18, they could support themselves.

    Why did trade schools go away?? Germany still had them when I lived there in 1970 and Germany is the power house of Europe.

  4. Marie says

       So many
    more unemployed and homeless hungry people… For the comfortably wealthy people an
    annoyance that they want to keep out of their sight and mind; just letting them
    starve on the streets, preferable where they can’t be seen.
       Any church that really practice what Christ taught,
    should open their doors. All their parishioners  should get involved . We need firm organizers to
    get those drifters involved in the work to cook, feed, overnight-shelter and  clean-up after themselves. (Without preaching
    and demanding them to follow a certain “spiritual” path). The government is not
    giving them jobs or a way to support themselves… If we want to keep our society
    livable , we have to share from our own comfort or sometimes meager means. Not everyone has the creative ability to set up some little (legal) business for himself that can bring some survivable income. Some have brains, some others have just 2 hands.

    • Hwood007 says

      I assume your church does as you suggest.  I have offered several street beggers a meal at a fastfood shop, they decline, they just want the cash and I am not willing to do that.

      • Juliana says

        This is a stretch (and do with your money what you will) but what if your employer decided in a salary negotiation to pay you in food? In that exchange you ask for money because you know how best to spend it. What if the employer decided, well HWood007 is gonna spend money on eating out and not invest it, well then i’m just not willing to pay. Absurd! Of course the so called “street beggars” aren’t necessarily/always offering anything in exchange for the requested gift, but why be so controlling in the giving. If a dude who lives on the street hits me up for a $1 that he’ll likely use for beer, i’m fine with that. The gov hits me up for tax dollars and they don’t ask for my input on how my gift(tax) is allocated. If I truly had a vote I’d want that money to go toward rehab, family, social services. In that case i don’t get to say, oh you wanna bail out wall street, “i’m not willing to do that.”….


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