Leading into Democratic Presidential Debate, Advocates Point to CA as Model of Criminal Justice Reforms That Candidates Have Proposed

For Immediate Release | December 19, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CA – Ahead of tonight’s Democratic Presidential debate in Los Angeles, advocates pointed to the State of California as a prime example of a state that has successfully implemented criminal justice reforms to reduce incarceration and improve public safety. Should the moderators press candidates on their views about criminal justice reform, they will be in a state that is a model for implementing what many of the candidates have proposed. No state has experienced a greater shift on the reduction of over-incarceration and the implementation of reforms that shift focus to crime prevention and effective safety programs than California.

California is home to one of the nation’s original three strikes laws and was formerly the largest incarceration state in the world. In the past decade, California voters and lawmakers have enacted more than a dozen bills or ballot initiatives that have had a tremendous impact on the entire nation’s prison population. In the past decade, California alone has accounted for literally half the decline in the prison populations of all 50 states combined.  

“Once a bellwether for mass incarceration, California has fueled a national movement that is leading this country away from the ineffective status quo of mass incarceration and toward a new approach that prioritizes prevention and addressing the root causes of crime,” said Lenore Anderson, President of Californians for Safety and Justice. “I am proud that Californians for Safety and Justice has been at the forefront of these winning reforms. But we need more public safety models that break the revolving door of incarceration and that build up healthy communities.  In the upcoming Presidential debate, candidates have a unique opportunity to uplift effective reform policies, pioneered here in California, in a way that reinforces and extends these practices to states across the country.”

California’s passage of Proposition 47 in 2014, which reclassified hundreds of crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, was the hallmark ballot initiative that officially ushered in an era of reform.  The campaign was chaired by Lenore Anderson, who subsequently founded Californians for Safety and Justice (CSJ) with veteran justice leader Robert Rooks.  CSJ gave rise to partner organization the Alliance for Safety and Justice and Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, now encompassing the largest criminal justice organizations in the country and representing the first time that crime survivors have been central to policy development and grass-roots organizing to pass legislative and electoral reforms.

In the past seven years, Californians for Safety and Justice and many others have been the driver of the two successful criminal justice ballot initiatives in California (47 & 57), and have secured legislative wins that:

  • Reclassified numerous low-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors;
  • Reduced the impact of mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements;
  • Limited excessive sentences and adult transfers for juveniles;
  • Expanded evidence-based practices to reduce returns to prison for people on probation;
  • Reallocated hundreds of millions of dollars from state prisons to treatment and victim services.

These are all reforms that have been undertaken while California has demonstrated a historic drop in violent crime and that mirror many policy plans presented by Democratic Presidential Candidates.  In 2018, California also became the first state in the nation to pass legislation completely eliminating money bail.

The culmination of these reforms has provided California’s Governor Gavin Newsom the opportunity to call for an end to California’s death penalty and to announce his goal of entirely closing at least one California prison — pronouncements that would have been politically perilous in California’s tough-on-crime past.  (In 2017, Californians for Safety and Justice released a report showing how a series of reforms focused on sentencing and length of incarceration could safely cut the number of people in the state’s prisons by at least 30,000, positioning California to close as many as five prisons and save at least $1.5 billion.)

According to recent research conducted by Californians for Safety and Justice, about one in three Californians have been a victim of crime in the past 10 years, and most California voters think the justice system should do more to rehabilitate and reduce costs, and prefer more resources concentrated on rehabilitation, mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment.

2020 will prove a pivotal year for protecting and advancing reforms across the country.  By continuing to talk about their criminal justice reform plans, Presidential candidates have the power to continue the move away from prison-first approaches of the past, which have failed communities while wasting billions of dollars.


The Alliance for Safety and Justice is a national organization that aims to win new safety priorities in states across the country. We partner with leaders to advance state reform through networking, coalition building, research, education and advocacy. We also bring together diverse crime survivors to advance policies that help communities most harmed by crime and violence.