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. As president, Reagan was notoriously crime-obsessed. In a Slate article called “No Mercy” soon after the former president’s death, the powerful New York defense attorney Gerald Shargel wrote that “with almost biblical reach, Reagan sought to smite what he perceived as the criminal menace.” As Reagan’s own attorney general said of him, Reagan wanted to readjust “‘the balance between the forces of law and the forces of lawlessness.’”
So Gartner, the criminologist set about to reconcile a seeming paradox: 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 Zimring 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. It was also a different political era, Gartner says–one where the public wasn’t that focused on criminal justice policy. As Gartner and her colleagues point out, for the three decades before 1971, not a single law and order ballot initiative was introduced in California. Since 1971, there have been 89. So Reagan simply didn’t face the same kind of frenzied political environment around crime and punishment that Governor Schwarzenegger has dealt with and that the next governor will surely inherit.
Reagan once asked, in reference to his prison policy, “who’s going to accuse me of being liberal?” Our current movie-star, tough-guy of a governor has probably asked himself very similar questions.
But what Reagan also didn’t face that Schwarzenegger has contended with, is the current challenge of mass incarceration. His cut happened right before a massive boom–one that’s bloated the prison population in California to a current 165,000 inmates. Reagan’s cut was drastic, but it was 10,000, not the 40,000 that the state may be forced to cut by federal courts. (That issue will be debated next month before the US Supreme Court.)
And it turns out, not a lot of strategies exist for getting giant chunks of people out of prison–Gartner, Doob and Zimring’s research here is rare. We’ve had a good deal of analysis on how mass incarceration happened–the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, etc.–but how do you unwind that tangle of bureaucracy, politics, and law and clean it up? We’ve had some progress in that respect, but it’s been small. California’s prison population did decline by almost 5,000 inmates last year. And the state has embarked recently on an effort to make its parole system more effective–by assessing each person coming out of prison’s risk for committing a new crime, and then leaving them off direct parole supervision if their risk is low. But if the state is indeed required to cap the population, more creativity and more political risk-taking will surely be needed.