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The Great Experiment: California's Prison Realignment and the Legal Reform of Mass Incarceration

NCJ Number
Date Published
172 pages

This paper reports on a project that examined the 2011 “Realignment” of California’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prison system as a case study into how legal interventions and policy innovations filter to lower levels of government, local and organizational, and professional practices.


This paper addresses the prison overcrowding that has led to humanitarian, legal, and fiscal emergencies across the U.S., which are especially pronounced at the state level where the Great Recession most directly impacted public spending. Within that context, this thesis specifically examines the 2011 “Realignment” of California’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prison system using multiple methods; it discusses how differences in local organizational culture shape the meaning of law on the ground in ways that bolster or undermine the reform goal of decarceration. The research reported here focused on two questions: first, how local criminal justice actors respond to, comply with, shape, and resist prison downsizing laws; and second, what effect these responses have on decarceration as a key metric of institutional change. A combination of group-based trajectory modeling and institutional ethnographic methods were used to assess the proposition that local organizational culture mediates the implementation of prison downsizing laws and that variation in county organizational culture explains differences in the outcome of decarceration. These multiple methods enabled to the study to do the following: to specify the measures of local variation most salient in predicting decarceration; to identify processes by which local organizational culture mediates law, as well as variations in these processes across counties; and to relate these variations to the outcome of decarceration.

Date Published: January 1, 2016