How California Prisons Got To Be So Insanely Overcrowded

California has been ordered to release nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of the year to resolve a notorious overcrowding problem that's been brewing for decades. The Golden State's prison crisis reached a fever pitch in 2011 after the Supreme Court said the overcrowding amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment." Now all eyes are on liberal Gov. Jerry Brown, who insists the public's safety will be jeopardized if he releases the inmates. The mass release would only bring prisons down to 137 percent of their capacity.

So how did California's prisons get to be so dreadfully overcrowded in the first place? The state actually had a reputation for an ultra-progressive penal system before 1980, according to the radio documentary "Prisons in Crisis: A State of Emergency In California." Then California began aggressively increasing sentencing in the late 1980s and 1990s in response to nationwide fear about high crime rates. Several high-profile crimes by parolees including the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klauss stoked fear in California, according to "Prisons in Crisis."

California enacted more than 1,000 laws that increased sentencing in a five-year span to settle these fears, law professor Jonathan Simon told "Prisons in Crisis" producer JoAnn Marr. "Legislators were competing with each other to see who could be tougher," Marr reported. "Any politician seen as being soft on crime ran the risk of losing his seat."

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