In response to California’s alarmingly overcrowded prison system, a three-judge panel could soon implement a cap on the state’s prison population—a move that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and other political leaders think misguided because it would put dangerous criminals back on the streets.
Despite the risk, Professor Jonathan Simon ’87/’90 (Ph.D.), an expert on criminal justice and punishment in modern societies, welcomes such a cap. “Not,” he writes in an August 7 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, “because it would solve the problems caused by our state’s overuse of imprisonment, but because it is likely to compel our paralyzed political branches to be more responsible in the way they approach imprisonment.”
Today, California imprisons its residents at more than four times the level it did in 1980. Of the 180,000 prisoners in the state prisons, tens of thousands are there for parole violations that did not involve a new criminal offense. Still others are serving extended sentences for property and drug crimes based on the state’s three-strikes law and other sentencing-enhancement measures adopted during what Simon terms “nearly three decades of unrestrained politicization of punishment in California.”
The massive prison system consumes California’s resources, straining the state’s ability to fund other strategies for reducing crime, such as community policing, drug treatment, and long-term care for the mentally ill. In addition, says Simon, “Other pressing problems in education and healthcare will never be addressed as long as our imprisonment habit continues unabated.”
While he believes that recent legislation to build more prisons and add more beds to existing prisons “alone cannot produce the safe and humane conditions behind bars that the U.S. Constitution requires,” Simon commends Schwarzenegger for doing “more than any governor in recent decades to acknowledge and address this chronic structural problem.” But he wants the governor to go further: “The governor should appoint a sentencing commission staffed with independent experts on crime and law enforcement to overhaul sentencing laws, with a mandate to reduce our reliance on prisons.”
Simon teaches courses on criminal law, criminal justice, risk and the law, and socio-legal studies at Boalt Hall. He is also the associate dean of Boalt’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program and faculty co-chair of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice. His most recent book, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear, was published in 2007.