Over the last few years, California has taken decisive and significant steps to dismantle mass incarceration and the carceral state, but it has not always been this way. The road to modest reform has been a long and painful one, particularly for Black people. It’s no secret that America’s economy has long profited from the bondage and exploitation of Black bodies, beginning with slavery in the 1600s and continuing with the rise of the prison industrial complex in the 1970s. In the early 2000s, the state of California had the highest incarceration rate in the United States, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. Black people have been acutely and disproportionately impacted by this mass incarceration. There are several distinct stops on the road to mass incarceration and criminal justice reform in California that are also of national consequence:
In 1971, amid the government’s well-documented attempts at surveilling and dismantling Black Liberation Movements and Black leaders in California and across the nation (1960s-1980s), President Nixon, a Californian, declared a “War on Drugs.”1 This expanded the federal drug agencies and pushed mandatory minimum sentencing that acutely impacted Black, Brown, and poor people.2
In 1976, California passed the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act which required CA judges to determine specific prison sentence lengths. This ultimately increased sentence length and propelled a 900% increase in California’s prison population over the next two and a half decades.3
Throughout the 1980s, President Reagan, a long-time California resident, oversaw the scaling of America’s ineffective yet highly persuasive “War on Drugs” campaign. He helped pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which instituted mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug crimes and led to skyrocketing incarceration rates and the construction of eight new prisons in California (almost doubling the state’s prisons).4 5
In the 1990s, California voters overwhelmingly bought into the message of being “tough on crime,” passing the infamous “three strikes” sentencing law, which mandated sentences of 25 years to life for most people convicted of a felony and who had two or more previous “serious or violent” convictions.6 This led to the construction of twelve more prisons in California.7
At its peak in 2006, California had 33 prisons, housing almost 175,000 people and spending about 6% of its state budget on mass incarceration.8 9 10 A whopping 41.6% of those incarcerated in the United States were Black.11 A decade later, it was estimated that the nation’s three largest prison management companies, all with prisons in California, received $3.9 billion in revenue from mass incarceration and immigration detention, making a $374 million profit in one year.12
The 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Plata ruled that California start taking measures to decrease its prison population, setting the stage for lawmakers to re-evaluate the sentencing, incarceration, and parole policies that led to inhumane and overcrowded prisons.13
From 2014-2016, voters began rejecting ineffective and harsh sentencing propositions and pursuing more healing and restorative measures. This included passing modest–but much-needed–criminal justice reforms, efforts to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated folks, and investments in alternatives to incarceration. Some notable propositions and measures included: Prop 47 (2014), 57 (2016), Prop 17 (2020), ACA 6, Measure J in LA County (2020), and the rejection of Prop 20 (2020).
Today, we are at a critical fork in the road towards justice and liberation. California’s prison reforms are still new and few, and there is always a risk of California upholding ineffective, fear-based policies that produce racist outcomes and lifelong barriers for systems-impacted Black folks. For instance, as a result of criminal records, Black people convicted of a felony have historically faced denials of rights and access to key public benefits ranging from full voting rights, to eligibility for housing, to gainful employment in the public or private sectors. The denial of access to basic rights and needs can be just as damaging as the physical bondage of incarceration.
The road to real justice could lead us to continued and accelerated change. This will require significant education and mobilization of voters. The vast majority of reforms noted in our timeline were passed by voters, not the legislature, underscoring the importance of political representation and voting power. The CA Redistricting Commission’s work developing maps that fairly distribute political representation is critical to the future of criminal justice reform.
California deserves leaders who value justice, equity, and fairness, and recognize the deep histories of the past and the promise of a future where Black people are allowed to thrive. By producing maps that provide a path for exercising Black political voice and power, the CA Redistricting Commission can be a key accelerator on the road to real justice in California.
And who better to talk about this road to justice and liberation than those who walk it every day?
1 Richard Nixon. “Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control.” June 17, 1971. Online by Gerhard Peters
and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Archived from the original on December 12, 2013.
2 National Research Council. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2014).
3 Matthew Green. “How One Law Helped Pack California’s Prisons”. KQED. January 23, 2012.
4 Hinton, E. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
5 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Adult Facilities and Locations. Archived from the original on 2020-03-29.
6 Brown and Jolivette. “A Primer: Three Strikes – The Impact After More Than a Decade“. California Legislative Analyst’s Office. October 2005.
7 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Adult Facilities and Locations. Archived from the original on 2020-03-29.
8 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Adult Facilities and Locations. Archived from the original on 2020-03-29.
9 California Legislative Analyst’s Office. How Many Prison Inmates Are There in California?. January 2019.
10 California Legislative Analyst’s Office. Analysis of 2006-07 Budget Bill. February, 2006.
11 Sabol, Couture, and Harrison. “Prisoners in 2006”. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. December 2007.
12 Wagner and Rabuy. “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration”. Prison Policy Initiative. January 2017.
13 California Legislative Analyst’s Office. Reducing Prison Overcrowding in California. August 2011.