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How California Is Reducing Its Prison Population

Lenore Anderson
2:48
Still image from “How California Is Reducing Its Prison Population.” The state that infamously pioneered America’s toughest sentencing laws is now leading an effort to correct them—and allocating millions of dollars to prevention and treatment in the process.

California has long been a bellwether for the nation’s attitudes on criminal justice policy.

During the 1990s, the state enacted its infamous “three strikes” law, which mandated dramatically longer sentences for people with prior felony convictions; the law came to epitomize the harsh mandatory minimums that swept the country.

Last fall, California made a significant course correction. Voters overwhelmingly approved Prop 47, a ballot initiative reclassifying many low-level nonviolent and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Advocates and officials across the country are now studying Prop 47 and gauging whether similar measures might succeed in their states.

Lenore Anderson had a lot to do with Prop 47’s success. Anderson, an attorney and former top aide to Oakland’s mayor and San Francisco’s district attorney, is executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit organization that works for sensible reforms to promote public safety by spending less on incarceration and more on prevention and treatment.

Through her organization’s Vote Safe project, she helped to assemble a genuine left–right coalition in support of the initiative—a coalition that has come to see that mass incarceration is costly, inhumane, and fails to make the public materially safer. In the months since its passage, Prop 47 has already been credited with helping California reduce its prison population by nearly 3,000 inmates, helping to bring the state into compliance with a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding. As Anderson discusses in the video above, the projected savings from the reduction in incarceration will be used to support prevention efforts, provide substance abuse and mental health treatment, and bolster support services for crime victims.

Californians for Safety and Justice is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations. At Open Society is a video series highlighting the people and ideas that are inspiring our work—and changing the world.

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