Research | Spring 2015 Issue

Prison Sentencing: Politics vs. Results

For decades, California fought crime with long, rigid prison sentences. It didn't work.

By Lisa Fung

Michael Stoll didn’t set out to become an expert on prison sentencing.

When he entered academia more than two decades ago, he focused on the challenges that low-skilled workers face in the labor market, examining questions such as barriers to employment and racial disparities in unemployment rates.

But about 10 years ago, Stoll’s research shifted. “In some of the seminars I would give across the country, I was always getting this question: ‘Why do so many men have prison records?’ That was the elephant in the room.” Stoll studied poverty rates, racial inequality and income inequality, but he also began to examine how employers responded to efforts to find low-skill jobs by a growing number of ex-offenders mostly men, primarily minorities who had served time for low-level offenses, like property and drug crimes.

Americans in prison

Stoll, a professor of public policy and urban planning at UCLA, joined Steven Raphael, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, and they threw a net over the elephant. “We started to do a lot of work looking at under what conditions do employers hire people with records, when do they discriminate against them, and who bears the cost of employers’ behaviors,” Stoll said. They began publishing books on these questions, beginning with “Do Prisons Make Us Safer?” in 2009, and, more recently, in 2013, “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?” Stoll and Raphael found that the prison population had increased dramatically. In the ’70s, most industrialized countries incarcerated about 100 people per 100,000, or about 0.01% of the general population. In the United States, that was true until the 1980s, but by 2007 the percentage had quintupled. Their findings suggested that the surge was almost entirely attributable to changes in policy, which included reclassifying some offenses and increasing the severity of sentencing. “Americans,” Stoll said, “either through elected officials or referendums or other mechanisms, got tougher on crime.

“There’s a whole bunch of theories about why,” he said, including incentives from the federal government that promised more resources for police and for building prisons if states adopted legislation known as truth-in-sentencing laws, which required that people convicted of crimes serve 80% of their sentences. “We do know that people ran on platforms to get tough on crime. If you’re the opposition candidate, then the way you equalize them is by saying that you’re equally as tough. You can’t say you’re softer.” That doesn’t work with voters.

As incarceration surged, Stoll said, “There was a big debate going on about whether prisons work in reducing crime.” Indeed, he said, “Crime rates since the 1990s have declined rather dramatically.” Violent crime, for example, fell about 46% nationwide, from 713.6 to 386.9 per 100,000 between 1994 and 2012, their research found. “Most people say the reason that crime is dropping is because you locked everybody up,” Stoll said. But research by Stoll and Raphael indicates this assumption is simply wrong. They found that the get-tough laws were not causing the drop in crime. While
increased incarceration accounted for about 10% of the decline, changing demographics played a big role. “We’re getting older, we’re getting more foreign-born. Older people and foreign-born people are less likely to engage in crime,” Stoll said. In addition, school attendance was up, and high school graduation rates had climbed. “We know there is a relationship between being in school and crime.”

Moreover, Stoll and Raphael found that as prison populations grew, benefits decreased. The financial impact of high incarceration rates was significant. The annual cost of housing an inmate ranged from the low $40,000s to upwards of $60,000 at high-security prisons. That included the cost of building and maintaining prisons as well as the expense of providing guards and other prison personnel. At the jail level, costs varied widely, but they were significantly lower. In California, Stoll said, the price of jailing offenders instead of imprisoning them was as much as 60% to 70% lower. Today about 2.2 million people are being held in state prisons, federal prisons or local jails across the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. Notably, Stoll says, incarceration rates are disproportionate for African Americans and Hispanics, which account for 20% and 25% of the prison population, but only 11% and 13% of society.

Funding associated with prisons accounts for 5% to 15% of state budgets, and in some places as much as 20%. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, nearly $9 billion was allocated to the agency for fiscal year 2013-14. “These are huge budgetary categories that take up a lot of the General Fund,” Stoll said. “When [state] budgets shrank, people had to think creatively. That was when people started to think about how you do this differently. … There was movement on thinking smart.”

Stoll and Raphael concluded that “getting smarter” meant changing sentencing and parole practices, abandoning mandatory minimum sentences and creating incentives to redefine the use of state prison systems. Such policy changes, Stoll said, will result not only in cost savings but also in reduced crime rates. “Our idea of the diminishing margin of returns to incarceration as a crime-fighting strategy starts with the idea that if we use prison right if you target the most violent in society and the most criminally prone that is where you get the most effectiveness in reducing crime.”

Growing up in L.A.

Michael Stoll grew up in the Crenshaw district in South L.A. (“I’m one of the rare UCLA faculty members from Los Angeles,” he said). He attended Cal State Northridge for two years before transferring to UC Berkeley. “I had no idea I was going to be a professor when I went to Berkeley,” he said. “That just sort of happened.” In his senior year, Stoll met a graduate student from Africa who was pursuing a Ph.D. in political science and a master’s in public policy. “I met him and another graduate student in public policy, and they introduced me to this world of city planning and public policy where I could actually be a professional and do stuff that makes a difference.”

From Berkeley, Stoll went to MIT. “I was going to do a master’s only. But I guess I was performing well in class, and a senior faculty member, during the middle of my first year, asked me what my interests were. I told him, and he said, ‘I think you’d be a great Ph.D. student.’

“I was, like, ‘What does that mean?’

“Then I started thinking about it. I liked doing the research, and I was innately curious, so it just clicked that that’s what I wanted to do.”

In his office at UCLA, surrounded by stacks of books, Stoll, now 49, talks eagerly about where his research has taken him. But it is clear that he is just as devoted to his family. His wife, Kenya Covington, is an assistant professor of urban planning at Cal State Northridge. The wall behind him is covered with photos of their 6-year-old daughter, Myla, and his two older daughters, Emera, 14, and Samina, 11, who live in Florida with their mother. “I invest a lot of time in my daughters,” Stoll said. When Myla showed an interest in tennis, he took it up himself. “I do a lot of running,” he said. “I lift weights, I do stretching and yoga.” He loves music – jazz, R&B and soul. He enjoys traveling, but does so mostly for work: research, presenting papers and consulting.

In addition to books on workplace and labor market issues, Stoll has written three on crime and prisons, as well as numerous papers on the effectiveness of prisons in reducing crime. With Raphael, he recently authored the paper “A New Approach to Reducing Incarceration While Maintaining Low Rates of Crime” for the Brookings Institution, where Stoll is a senior fellow.

His Brookings paper and other publications emphasize that money can be saved by using prisons to house the more dangerous criminals and shifting less violent offenders to less expensive jails. The savings can then be used to expand local police forces, which have been shown to be effective in lowering crime, or for other preventative or rehabilitative measures.

“All state budgets are strained, ridiculously so because of the [recent] recession,” Stoll said. “You have to think of more efficient ways to use resources.”

Changing views on crime and justice

Such changes are already taking place.

In 2011, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 109, which targeted prison overcrowding by letting judges send low-level, nonviolent, non-sex crime felony offenders to local jails instead of state prisons. It also allowed violators to split their sentences between time spent behind bars and time under supervised release. In 2012, Californians voted overwhelmingly to change the state’s Three Strikes law by limiting the ability of prosecutors to seek 25-year to life sentences for lawbreakers if their latest offense was not a serious or violent crime. Statistics compiled by the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, whose director, Michael Romano, helped draft the change, show that prisoners released since the revision have a low rate of recidivism.

Last year, California voters approved Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that reduced the classification of several criminal offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, among them drug possession, forgery and some other nonviolent crimes. That made more offenders eligible for sentencing to less costly local jails. It also allowed these offenders to seek reduced sentences and possibly release. Savings from these changes were earmarked for mental health and substance abuse treatment, truancy prevention and victim services and are expected to be realized next year.

“We just went through a period in some big states that had been big incarcerators – California, Florida to some extent, Texas a few years ago – where they just got softer on crime,” Stoll said. “And even conservatives, who are usually the get-tough-on-crime people, have been fairly strong, vocal proponents on getting smarter on crime. So we’re in this unique period.”

In Los Angeles County, the Sheriff’s Department has seen a decrease of about 3,000 inmates since Proposition 47 was enacted, bringing the jail population down to about 15,500, according to Commander Jody Sharp of the population management division. “We’re still overcrowded,” Sharp said, “but we were able to depopulate some areas.
We were able to take bunks out of day rooms and spread the inmates throughout the facilities more easily, and it helped us manage our population better.” The decrease in population also allowed officials to complete renovation and repairs and to create space for educational programs.

Because of overcrowding and AB 109 mandates, “Inmates typically were doing anywhere from 10% to 40% of their time, based on what type of charge they had,” Sharp said. “As the population has decreased, we were able to increase the percentage of time served by the inmates in custody to where now they’re doing 90% to 100% of their time.”

For the Sheriff’s Department, she says, the changes highlighted special needs. Although overall population went down by about 16%, there was no noticeable drop in the mental health population. “So mental health is something we’re focusing on now,” she said. “Some [inmates with mental health problems] require specialized housing, and Proposition 47 allowed us a little flexibility with that. But we’re looking for ways to deal with the mentally ill because this is a jail … [and] it’s not the best way to house those in need of mental health treatment. …

“We’re learning as we go,” Sharp said. “There are things that we just did not know when we started. I think things were spread thin everywhere, but we’re finding ways to look for funding and finding ways to do things better and enhance what we do, with the goals of reducing recidivism or working with our community partners to assist the inmates so they don’t come back to jail. That’s our goal; that’s everybody’s goal.”

Since the enactment of Proposition 47, police are making fewer drug arrests. “Some chiefs indicate as high as 35% to 40% reductions,” according to Edward Medrano, Gardena police chief and a vice president of the California Police Chiefs Association. “Officers are not spending as much time or effort enforcing narcotic offenses because they’re now a misdemeanor.” The message, Medrano said, “is that enforcement of narcotics is not as important to our community and that they would rather have us spend time doing other things.”

At the county level, the Sheriff’s Department has seen a 28.7% drop in narcotics arrests from Nov. 5, 2014, through Feb. 5, 2015, compared with the same period 12 months before, according to Assistant L.A. County Sheriff Mike Rothans, who oversees patrol operations. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials say, property crimes, which some drug users commit to support their habits, have risen slightly.

There is no statistical proof that fewer drug arrests cause an increase in property crimes, Stoll said. Moreover, local statistics are insufficient to indict a proposition with statewide impact, and no comprehensive numbers are available. If there is an uptick, Stoll said, “The question is whether society is willing to accept these slightly higher property crime rates – particularly if there’s no physical victimization – for less expense on state prisons and more investment in other crime-control strategies. What is the tradeoff that society is willing to make?”

Rothans and other law enforcement officials worry that fewer felony convictions for drug crimes will mean that many offenders will no longer be required to attend rehabilitation programs – and that funding for those programs, determined by enrollment, will drop.

Stoll acknowledges the concern. “Because we don’t have the savings yet and programs for re-entry in place, we can’t ensure that those convicts get the right services so they can minimize their recidivism,” he said. “Once we see the savings, the idea is that we can start putting in diversion support programs at the local level.”

All sides agree the goal is making communities safer, with the understanding that change will take time.

“It’s a work in progress,” Stoll said, “but policy change and adoption is taking place. It’s not a seamless transition. There’s uncertainty. But it costs substantially less for jails than for prisons.”

Lisa Fung

Lisa Fung

Lisa Fung is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, who has held senior editorial positions at The Los Angeles Times and

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