How California's Prison Population Exploded
Professors Robert Weisberg and Joan Petersilia discuss the state’s prison population explosion with Joaquin Palomino of the East Bay Express and explain the choices the state now faces on the issue.
Lindsey Bolar was living in Southern California, working as a short-order cook and raising two children. It was 1987, and the strains of being a new father, paired with a long-time heroin addiction, put him in a financial bind, so he rented out a room in his apartment. But his new roommate didn't pay his rent one month, so Bolar forced him into his car and drove him to the bank. He told his roommate, "If you don't get me my rent money, I'm going to beat your ass. I'm going to break your jaw.'" It was a strong-armed way of collecting what he was owed; the courts called it "kidnap for ransom." Bolar was sentenced to seven years to life.
Inside Calipatria State Prison, Bolar grew angry and started dealing drugs. He used the money he made to pay for his defense lawyer. Anything left over went to support his two children and his heroin habit, which followed him behind bars. The drug dealing went on for a decade, eventually landing him a fourteen-month stay in solitary confinement and a transfer to Solano State Prison. He says the ten years of hustling behind bars left him tired: "When your family start dying, when your kids start growing up, when you start missing stuff, then reality hits you," he said. "When you in that cell sometime by yourself, reality hits you, and you want to go home."
From the 1940s to the 1960s, California prisons were the envy of the nation. The system maintained a low recidivism rate; its wardens held advanced degrees in social work; many rehabilitation programs were mandatory, and the ones that weren't enjoyed high enrollment numbers because inmates wanted to impress their parole boards. "California was the model of good correctional management and inmate programming," said Stanford University law professor Joan Petersilia.
In this frenzy, between 1984 and 1991, California passed more than 1,000 crime bills. Virtually none of them reduced sentences, and many of them imposed so-called "sentence enhancements." A sentence enhancement allows a judge to tack time onto a sentence for a number of reasons. "So you could have burglary, which has a base sentence of five years," explained Robert Weisberg, the director of Stanford's Criminal Justice Center, "you could add a number of years onto that sentence for the use of a gun, the particular time of day the crime was performed, a list of priors."
The Supreme Court's decision freed many lifers, but its effects were mitigated by Proposition 9, an equally momentous amendment to the state constitution known as Marsy's Law. Approved by California voters in 2008, Marsy's Law became the nation's strongest "victims' bill of rights." The law allows crime victims to speak at parole board hearings. Although this isn't a frequent occurrence, when victims do speak at hearings the odds of release drop by half, according to a 2011 academic paper, Life in Limbo, coauthored by Weisberg of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.