A brief history of California prisons and jails leading up to AB 109 (“Public Safety Realignment”)

San Quentin Prison - historic
Historic photo of San Quentin State Prison. During its construction, inmates labored to build the new prison during the day and slept on the prison ship, the Waban at night.

Assembly Bill 109 is designed to reduce California’s prison population and recidivism rates in order to comply with the United States Supreme Court’s mandate to reduce prison overcrowding.  Here’s a brief history of California prisons leading up to AB 109:

  • 1851, California opened San Quentin, its first prison. 150 years later it is still fully operational and houses death row inmates.
  • 1858, San Quentin, originally built with 62 cells, housed over 600 inmates.  To address the problem of overcrowding the state builds more cells.
  • 1933, the first women’s prison at Tehachapi was built. Until this time, San Quentin housed both male and female inmates.  
  • 1977, “Determinate” sentencing is introduced by Governor Brown. Then California had a dozen prisons with 21,000 inmates. The scheme limits the discretion of judges and parole boards (Harvard Law Review, 2010). Determinate sentences are prison terms of a fixed duration. The court specifies the length of the term. After the defendant has served a certain percentage of his or her term, the Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation calculates when the defendant may be released, based on his or her accumulated credits.
  • 1980, California houses 23,264 inmates in twelve prisons.
  • 1994, California voters overwhelmingly approve the “Three Strikes” law for offenders convicted of three qualifying felonies a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in state prison. The Law has contributed to California having the nation’s highest number of incarcerated offenders with life imprisonment terms (Moore, 2007).
  • 1995, a class-action lawsuit places California’s prison mental health programs under the oversight of a special master. A federal judge criticizes state officials for their “recalcitrant refusal” to provide proper psychiatric care for inmates.
  • 1998, the state budget for the CDCR hits $3.5 billion.
  • 2001, a second class-action suit, Plata v. Brown is filed, alleging inadequate medical care in prisons because of overcrowding argued that the CDCR violated not only the Eighth Amendment, but also the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rogan, 2012).
  • 2002, the lawsuit is settled, with the state agreeing to overhaul its prison healthcare programs by 2008.
  • 2006, under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California hits a peak incarceration rate of 172,000 inmates (Rogan, 2012).
  • 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger declares prison overcrowding an “emergency” and orders 8,000 inmates transferred to other states, despite increased costs.
  • 2009, the state budget for the CDCR reaches $10.3 billion (CDCR, 2011).
  • 2009, the average cost per inmate in the state of California increased California Realignment: Assembly Bill (AB) 109 grew to $48,536 per year (Harvard Law Review, 2010).
  • 2009, the three-judge panel orders the state to cap its prison population at 137.5% of capacity, calling for release of nearly 43,000 inmates in two years to conform to constitutional standards. The order is ultimately put on hold pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • 2011, The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the 2009 ruling and orders the state to shed more than 33,000 inmates from prison rolls in two years. California officials soon begin sending low-level offenders (that is offences considered non-violent, non-sexual and non-threatening), to county jails instead of state lockups to reduce the prison population, a process called “realignment.”
  • 2011, the 33 State prisons housed more than 145,000 adult offenders and nearly 3,200 juvenile offenders making California’s the largest state-run prison system in the United States (CDCR, 2011).
  • 2011, in April, California Governor Jerry Brown signs AB109, a 423-page measure called “Public Safety Realignment” into law, to comply with a federal court order which requires the largest reduction of state prison inmates in the nation’s history.
  • 2011, the state budget for CDCR expenditures rise to 10%. (In 1980 expenditures were 4% of the budget (Rogan, 2012).
  • 2012, as of April of that year, California corrections officials questioned whether AB 109 alone would enable them to achieve compliance with the Supreme Court’s mandated overcrowding reduction. While 10,000 prisoners get released from California’s prisons each month (Steigerwald, 2012), new prisoners are sentenced every week, and only those in the “three-non’s” categories can be housed in a county jail.
  • 2013, Realignment does not reduce the prison population enough to meet the court order, but Governor Brown declares that “the prison crisis is over in California” and calls for returning the facilities to state control. The panel of federal judges does not rescind its order but agrees to extend the deadline for meeting the population cap from June 30 to Dec. 31.
  • 2013, between Brown and top lawmakers seek another extension for complying with the court order. If the judges grant the extra time, the state would fund rehabilitation programs intended to reduce the prison population. The judges appear open to the possibility of an extension, and delay the deadline for one month to allow state officials and lawyers for inmates to discuss a resolution.
  • 2013, Federal judges grant California two more years to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of the capacity for the state’s 33 prisons, extending the deadline from June 2013 to February 2016



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