In January of this year California Governor, Jerry Brown, petitioned a federal panel overseeing a 33,000 prisoner population reduction order by the Supreme Court, seeking an end to its judicial oversight. Referring to years of health crisis in California’s notorious prison system, Brown bellicosely declared, “The emergency is over.” On April 11, 2013, the federal panel rejected the governor’s request and demanded that the state "identify prisoners unlikely to re-offend" and reduce the population by 9,000 people before the end of the year. The state has until May 2 to submit a plan or be held in contempt.

We didn’t need a federal court ruling to confirm what people behind bars have continued to tell us even after California shifted prisoners from state to county control. Conditions in California’s prisons are crowded and inhumane. But now that the federal panel has rejected Brown’s attempt to wiggle out of compliance to reduce the state’s prison population, we have an opportunity to advance meaningful population reduction measures. These measures could result in the release of thousands of imprisoned people, returning them home to their families and communities.

Some of the population reduction strategies that are currently being put before the Brown Administration include medical and elderly parole, the expanded use of compassionate release for the terminally ill, expanding the use of the Alternative Custody Program, creating parole eligibility for term-to-life prisoners, decriminalizing drug possession, and reforming sentencing laws.

Population reduction measures may offer an incremental strategy that could move us closer to the goal of getting rid of human cages altogether while continuing to meaningfully engage in the political struggle over how our public resources are used.  Struggling for such reductions also helps us assess which policies bring us closer to a world without cages and which ones lead us further down the path of isolation, brutality, and deprivation. Toward those ends, we support current efforts by organization struggling day in and day out against the violence of imprisonment, to put clear effective reduction measures on the Governor’s desk. 

At Critical Resistance, we also see this as a key moment for California to take up the cancellation of all prison construction, and conversion projects.  Despite a dropping prison population, California still has plans to spend almost $900 million dollars on infill bed and conversion projects.  The only way to ensure the continued reduction of California’s bloated prison population is to eliminate the state’s capacity to imprison people.  A moratorium on construction and conversion projects and decommissioning empty lock ups offer such a path.
The emergency is not over.  Bold steps are required if the State of California is to make a good faith effort to respond to its residents, who overwhelming oppose the expansion of the prison system.  Those steps, in turn, are only as strong as the energy infused into them by the communities fighting on the ground.  While Jerry Brown and policy makers squabble over numbers, grassroots efforts to bring and keep our loved ones home must continue to be supported and maintained. As we all know, the only way of ensuring the implementation of any policy gains we might make is through sustained grassroots organizing and pressure.    

Roger White
Campaign Director
Critical Resistance
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