FAQ about prison expansion

Isn't California building prisons to keep us safe?

There are many reasons to explain California's massive prison population, and “public safety” is often the justification. But the call to protect “public safety” are often image-enhancing claims by politicians – being “tough on crime” often pays when it's voting time. Instead, the real reason why California has such a huge prison population comes from more complicated changes in policing and sentencing.

Some of the most common reasons why more and more people are locked up these days is because of increased criminalization and sentence enhancements.

Criminalization is the creation of new crimes. This simply means that politicians and courts began labelling activities as “crimes,” making certain things illegal that were once legal. One example is Proposition 21 – this criminalized the activity of hanging out in groups of three for many urban youth and attached a jail or prison sentence to those caught. Criminalization is also the policy of making some activities, which once did not even carry jail or prison time, into offenses that carry jail time. One example of this is the increased sentences for all drug-related activities; in the 1970's for example you wold get a ticket for carrying a small amount of marijuana, whereas today you could get a jail or prison sentence.

Sentence enhancements is the practice of increasing the amount of punishment associated with a crime. This is related to criminalization, because many things that did not receive jail or prison time now do, and many things that were once misdemeanors are now felonies, and now many felonies that once had shorter sentences now have longer, mandatory sentences. These mandatory sentences, called “mandatory minimums” create unchangeable minimum sentences that prisoners must serve if they are convicted of a crime. Another examples of “mandatory minimums” is California's “three strikes law,” which has increased minimum sentences for people convicted of third felonies.

Overall, California does NOT have a huge prison population because the number of people behaving horribly is growing daily. California has a huge prison population because we are putting people in cages for more time and the likelihood of ending up in cage has increased over the past thirty years.