Article | Criminal Law
A Criminal Law Based On Harm Alone: The Story of California Criminal Justice Reform
by Joshua Kleinfeld* & Thomas Hoyt†
From Vol. 94, No. 1
94 S. Cal. L. Rev. 35 (2020)
Keywords: Criminal Law, California Law, State Law
For many criminal justice reformers, the Holy Grail of change would be a criminal system that ends the war on drugs; punishes minor property and public order offenses without incarceration (or does not handle them criminally at all); and reserves prison mainly for violent offenders. What few appreciate is that California over the last nine years has done exactly that, and the results are breathtaking in their magnitude and suddenness: from 2011 to 2019, California released 55,000 people convicted mostly of nonviolent offenses (a quarter to a third of all California prisoners) and has been declining imprisonment—which often means declining arrest and prosecution altogether—for tens of thousands more who likely would have been imprisoned a decade ago. The changes happened piecemeal; this Article is the first to put the whole picture together. But we are now in a position to describe and evaluate the whole.
We come to three conclusions. First, California criminal justice reform reduced incarceration without increasing violence, but in so doing increased property crime, public drug use, street-level disorder, and likely homelessness to such an extent as to change the texture of everyday life in some California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. Second, these changes alter the relationship between individual and state substantially enough to constitute a new social contract: California has gone farther than any other American state toward a society based on John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.
Third, this array of costs and benefits is complex and nuanced enough that it is not irrational or otherwise normatively illegitimate for someone to think them either justice-enhancing or -diminishing, good for human welfare or bad for it. But what unequivocally redeems California’s new policies for California are their democratic credentials: they were accomplished through a series of elections over multiple years at multiple levels of government with a high degree of public deliberation. Criminal justice democratizers and strong proponents of federalism should endorse what California has done as a matter of political self-determination. But they might rationally not want the same thing for their own states.
*. Professor of Law and (by courtesy) Philosophy, Northwestern University. †. JD Candidate, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.