Rosemary Gartner, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, was studying the history of California’s women’s prisons when she stumbled across an unexpected fact: between 1968 and 1972, the incarceration rate in California dropped by 34 percent. The prison population naturally fluctuates a lot and we’ve seen massive increases over the years (particularly through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s), but big drops don’t happen very often–and a decline of this scale hasn’t been seen before or since that four-year period. What also surprised Gartner is that the decrease happened just after former President Ronald Reagan took office as governor of California. ...MORE: From an interview with the Justice editor at KALW News in a blog post at the San Francisco Chronicle:
How did Ronald Reagan, one of California’s most conservative and tough-on-crime governors, oversee the greatest decline in California’s prison population in history?
In a piece called “The past as prologue?,” Gartner joins with University of Toronto colleague Anthony Doob and UC-Berkeley Professor Franklin Zimmering to hash out exactly what happened during those four years. The academic paper is due out in Spring 2011, but Gartner gave us a preview.
In 1968, California’s prison population reached a (then) all-time high of 28,462. Four years later, it had dropped to 19,773. The decline, Gartner says, can be attributed to a number of policy changes. The first happened before Reagan took office–a program that gave incentives (like money) to local counties that reduced the number of people being sent to prison, largely by beefing up probation supervision and services. In addition, it seems parole violations became a bit more lax: parolees were not as easily sent back to prison for smaller violations, but were kept in the community. And finally, the researchers found, the Reagan-era parole board made it a policy to–unless there were strong reasons not to–parole people from prison as soon as they became eligible. But was Reagan directly responsible for the policies?
“He certainly celebrated the drop in the prison population,” Gartner says, and he took credit for it. In his 1971 inaugural address after being reelected as governor, Reagan lauded his success. “Our rehabilitation policies and improved parole system are attracting nationwide attention,” Reagan told the assembled crowd. “Fewer parolees are being returned to prison at any time in our history and our prison population is lower than at any time since 1963.”
More surprising than the drop itself is the man who brought it about, or at least encouraged it to happen. But Reagan seems to have, as governor, been more focused on the financial burdens of incarceration than the benefits to locking people up he embraced in his years as president.
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. ...
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.