Prison overcrowding: what would Reagan do?

Former President of the United States and Governor of California Ronald Reagan. Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov

For almost four decades, the number of state prisoners across the U.S. has been rising – until last year. In March, the Pew Center found that the overall state prison population in the country had declined for the first time since 1972. California was the state to shed the most prisoners – 4,257 inmates.

This was a small but promising turn for the country’s prison count overall, but in California, that kind of reduction is just not going to cut it. There are more than 165,000 people in our state prisons right now, and the next governor of California could be tasked with cutting that number by as much as 40,000.

This kind of reduction sounds daunting, but it was achieved before in our state history, and you’ll never guess who was governor at the time.

KALW’s criminal justice editor Rina Palta answers that question and more.

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HOLLY KERNAN: So Rina, California has about 166,000 inmates right now, but we haven't always had such a large prison population.

RINA PALTA: That's right. If you look at a graph of the prison population in California, there's kind of bumps up and down over the years. But 30 years ago or so, all you see is the population going up, up, up – except for one brief period, a four year period when the governor of California managed to reduce the incarceration rate by 34%. And you wouldn't possibly guess which governor that was.

FORMER PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Of all the changes in the past 20 years, none has more threatened our sense of national well-being than the explosion of violent crime.

KERNAN: Ronald Reagan!

PALTA: That's right! Recently, a criminologist up at the University of Toronto named Rosemary Gartner was studying the history of women's prisons in California when she noticed a big dip in California's prison population between 1968 and 1972. And between those years, the incarceration rate dropped 34%. So, Gartner looked up the crime rates and the overall population rates in those years, and ran those numbers and found that little other factors didn't account for the incarceration drop. So, she joined up with two colleagues, Anthony Doob from the University of Toronto and Frank Zimring over at U.C. Berkeley. And they set about studying the drop and the results will be published in the spring of next year.

KERNAN: Well, why don't you give us a little preview: what did they find?

PALTA: So, right around then, a few things were happening in the state. First of all, there were subsidies that were being given to counties to basically give them incentives to keep people from going to state prison. So a lot of that was going to the probation department, and saying, "If you can keep these people from offending, we'll give you money." That was actually a program that came about before Reagan, but he encouraged that to keep happening.

And there's also a decrease in the number of people going back to prison on parole violations during Reagan's time. And finally, he just flat-out started releasing people early.

KERNAN: When I think about Ronald Reagan, I think of him as conservative and tough-on-crime – that sort of a politician.

PALTA: Yes, he was. In his first inauguration speech as governor, he actually referred to crime as stemming from moral depravity, which was the kind of rhetoric he would later use as president as well. And crime rates were actually on the rise when Reagan was elected as governor. So it's kind of remarkable that this happened. And I think one thing that helps this make sense is that Reagan was such an economically conservative guy. He just didn't want the government to be spending so much money on imprisoning people, and at the time he took office, it was the highest level of prison population that California had ever had before, and he didn't want that to be the case anymore. And so he ended up listening to his advisors, listening to the professionals in the prison department and getting 10,000 people cut from the prison population.

KERNAN: That seems like it would be a really tough political sell today. And yet, it doesn't seem to be something that hurt Reagan's reputation at all.

PALTA: That's true. Gartner talks about this a lot in her research. Reagan actually bragged about releasing people from prison and shrinking the prison budget, which is hard to imagine nowadays. And this was just a different time politically. There wasn't a lot of attention on crime policy. You didn't have state ballot initiatives devoted to prison and crime issues. You didn't have a public that thought it was equipped and capable of making criminal justice policy. You didn't have a strong prison guards' union that lobbied the Legislature and the governor. And at the time, the governor just had more control over the prison system overall.

And then Gartner in a paper also points out something interesting Reagan once said about another element of his prison policy, which had to do with increasing conjugal visits, actually. And he basically said that no liberal could have supported it, but he said, "Who's going to accuse me of being a liberal or soft?" A conservative can sometimes make things happen that a more liberal politican can't get away with.

KERNAN: Which is why it seemed to me that Governor Schwarzenegger might be the governor to solve this issue. But that wasn't the case – what happened with Schwarzenegger's prison policy?

PALTA: Well, he has made some progress. The population did decline a little bit this past year because of a few things the state is doing. I'd say one reason he hasn't been able to drastically tackle this problem is that there's just not a lot of public support for a decrease in the prison population. One of the governor's more radical attempts to reduce the incarceration population, which was releasing people from local jails and freeing up space there, met horrible public opposition over the last couple years. And Schwarzenegger has also had some really weird ideas, like paying Mexico to build prisons and house some of our inmates there. Or pass a constitutional amendment trying to link prison dollars to education and make people take reducing the prison budget seriously. But they haven't worked. They haven't really gained any steam, and I think that there's first of all just a lack of ideas about how you accomplish such a reduction and just a lack of support for any radical changes to the prison policy.

KERNAN: California is under a court order to reduce its current prison population by at least a quarter. Courts have asked the state to cover 40,000 inmates. How is the state responding to that?

PALTA: One thing they're doing is they're trying to decrease penalties for certain crimes and just make more crimes have at least the option of charging them as a misdemeanor which would keep them in county jails as opposed to sending them to state prison for a felony.

They're also giving counties incentives for keeping people from violation probation. There's money that they're giving to probation departments and saying, "If you guys can help people be successful on probation, we'll give you more money so then you can in turn have more probation officers."

They have enhanced credit programs that get a couple people out of prison early, not a ton.

They're starting to transfer more inmates out of state to places like Michigan.

And the big one they're doing is non-revocable parole, which is an attack on basically what we've had. Everyone was pretty much put on parole when they were coming out of prison, and it's changing now. They're using a risk assessment model to see which people are more likely to re-offend. And those who have a very low likelihood of reoffending are put on a non-revocable parole, which means that they're not subject to supervision. They're not going to be put back in prison for a technical parole violation like not showing up for a meeting. But they will be subject to certain things that other parolees are still subject to, like warrantless searches.

KERNAN: And what is the impact of all of this on public safety? Is this working?

PALTA: According to the FBI statistics from last year, violent crime is going down nationwide, including in California, so there hasn't seemed to be a big uptick in violent crime coming from keeping people off parole. But, there hasn't been a superbig reduction in the prison population yet either, so it's hard to say.

Rina Palta is KALW’s criminal justice reporter. She blogs daily at KALW News’ new site, The Informant. Read more of Palta's work on this story here.