By Daniel Palmieri

Note: Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their authors and not necessarily those of Penn Dems as an organization.

The United States, representing only 5% of the global population, houses more than 25% of the prisoners around the world. According to The International Centre for Prison Studies, this equates to a United States incarceration rate of 716 per 100,000 people, an incarceration rate higher than that of China (121 per 100,000 people) and Iran (284 per 100,000 people.) Unfortunately, the United States has historically been a country that promotes incarceration even for minor crimes. In certain states, people could face sentences almost as long as those of rapists simply for possessing a controlled substance.

However, the country is starting to see individual initiatives towards the end of mass incarceration, in the hopes of reducing spending on the maintenance of this enormous prison population while leaving space in the prison system for the most serious offenders.

One such measure is taking place in the country’s most populous state: California. Having lived in California all of my life, I have seen witnessed first-hand the effect of mass incarceration. In 2013, California’s annual per-student spending was $8,482, ranking it at 49th in the nation. This dismal situation is largely due to California’s enormous incarceration expenditures: $60,000 per year per inmate.

This enormous gap between education and prison funding only worsens crime and incarceration rates, since many studies, such as Moretti and Lochner’s “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports” have found that lower rates of education leads to higher crime and incarceration rates. To address the situation of mass incarceration, California introduced Proposition 47 on the November 4th ballot. This proposition would “reduce the classification of most nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” from a felony to a misdemeanor. Specifically, this would reclassify crimes such as personal use of certain illegal drugs and shoplifting (value of stolen goods being under $950) to misdemeanors. The goals of this law are, according to the Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools, to reduce wasted prison space on low-level nonviolent crime, keep major offenders in prison, increase educational spending, while still protecting public safety.

The response to this proposition has been largely positive in California, with a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll showing 62% support for the measure.

Opponents, mainly county police departments and Senator Dianne Feinstein, view this measure as “going easy” on crime, allowing the release of dangerous criminals. However, the reality is very different. Child molesters, murderers and rapists still remain in prison, with their sentences completely unchanged. This proposition seeks to simply reduce a prison population that is increasing out of control, allow for increased education spending, and to reduce the overall crime rate.

Simply putting everyone in prison is not a solution to California’s or the United States’ mass incarceration problem. Initiatives likes these are what will ultimately reduce the inhumane overcrowding of prisons, as well as provide the possibility for a proper and full education to the nation’s children.


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