Craig Haney testifies before committee charged with revising state's penal code

40 years of mass incarceration must be reversed, says expert on criminal justice system

Photo of Craig Haney
Craig Haney, distinguished professor of psychology, awaits his turn to testify during a 2012 Senate hearing on solitary confinement. Haney testified Jan. 24 before the California Committee on Revision of the Penal Code. (Photo by Jay Mallin)

Craig Haney, distinguished professor of psychology, was the only witness to testify in Sacramento during the first meeting of the newly formed Committee on Revision of the Penal Code.

"The California Penal Code hasn't been overhauled in four or five decades," said Haney, who spent two hours with committee members on Jan. 24, discussing "how we got to the point of having a vastly overcrowded prison system and still not meaningfully addressing crime."

Committee Chair Michael Romano, director and founder of the Three Strikes and Justice Advocacy Projects at Stanford Law School, invited Haney, asking him to provide an overview of the last 40 years of criminal justice history in the state. Established by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the committee includes former legislator John Burton, two current California legislators, two former judges, and UCI Law School Dean L. Song Richardson.

"They all know the system extremely well, and we all agreed that when somebody goes to prison, there have been multiple systemic failures," said Haney, who advocates for a much more "nuanced and humane approach" with a broader range of options that do not include incarceration. "Putting someone in jail or prison reflects a simplistic, 19th-century view of crime," he said. "We now know better and need more enlightened and scientifically supportable policies."

Haney, who has studied capital punishment, the criminal justice system, and the psychological impacts of incarceration for more than 40 years, has watched the prison population explode over the past four decades.

"I told them that when I started this work, California had 19,000 people in prison, and that seemed like a lot. Many informed experts wanted to reduce even that number," said Haney. Today, the prison population stands at 120,000.

Although California incarcerates at the same "extraordinarily high rate" as many other states, the scale of imprisonment is different in the Golden State, said Haney. "We have massive prisons that can hold 4,000 or more inmates, compared to much smaller facilities elsewhere," he said. Enormous prisons generate a level of anonymity and alienation that takes a toll on inmates, and the buildings themselves were built to "warehouse people," which makes them difficult to convert to other purposes, including rehabilitation, he said.

Forty years of research

Drastic changes are needed, said Haney. Forty years of experience with the criminal justice system has taught him that crime is not a simple matter of someone making "bad choices" or manifesting individual-level pathologies. Rather, a person’s traumatic life history and dire present circumstances are the real determinants of whether he or she engages in crime, with childhood maltreatment, poverty, and racism being among the top risk factors, said Haney, noting that over 90% of people in prison are poor, and the majority are people of color.

"We have finally come to the point where there is widespread political agreement that punitive responses must give way to crime-prevention strategies that address these root causes," said Haney. "Criminal justice reform must integrate existing research as a basis for reducing prison populations."

Increased awareness of the impact of poverty and economic inequality needs to be understood as an issue of crime-prevention, as well as social justice, he said, adding "Crime and poverty are inextricably linked, and people at risk of being locked out of the economic system are at risk of being permanently locked into the criminal justice system."

"There really is a prison industrial complex"

Like many other states, California responded to increases in crime levels in the 1970s by embracing a host of draconian policies that drove up the number of people in prison, Haney told the committee. "We could've responded differently, by addressing the causes of crime, but we didn't," he said.

There were also large economic incentives for prison construction in California and other states, and the political and economic forces "fed off each other" as whole industries grew up around the boom in prison construction, he said. "There really is a prison industrial complex," said Haney. "In addition to all of the security hardware that has been introduced into corrections, there are telephone, food service, and other kinds of companies that primarily service prisons. There are even televisions made just for people in prison."

After Haney's presentation, the committee members asked him for his unfiltered vision of what a more just criminal justice system would look like. Haney acknowledged the need for "massive, fundamental change."

Among the most important reforms, Haney would like to see drastic reductions in how many people go to prison and for how long, as well as significant changes in the legal process by which sentences are decided. “Defendants’ life circumstances should be considered when their liberty is at stake—something currently allowed only in death-penalty cases, where defense attorneys present their client's "social history" for consideration during the penalty phase of the trial.

In addition to a shift toward a more “human services” orientation for police, which he admits would require new training and additional resources, Haney wants to overhaul the way prisons operate—and his vision has already gained traction in Oregon and elsewhere. For five years, Haney and Brie Williams, his collaborator at UCSF, have partnered to take U.S. corrections officers and officials to Norway, where they are trained in a wholly different approach to corrections. Oregon prison officials subsequently transformed that state's entire prison system, based in large part on what they learned in their Norway experience with Williams and Haney.

As Haney said, "In Norway, prisons operate on what they call the 'principle of normality,' recognizing that virtually everyone who goes in is eventually going to come out, so they try to make incarceration as much like normal life as possible.” But, he added, "I think they intuitively operate with one even more basic principle, one that the U.S. is only now grasping, the ‘principle of humanity.’ The Norwegians understand that no matter what someone has done, they retain their essential humanity and they need to be treated and responded to as a human being."

For too long in this country, he said, our media-driven society has viewed people who engage in criminal behavior as "evil, as monsters. We have learned to regard the perpetrators of crime as otherworldly beings who are not wired like everybody else."

But his decades of experience have taught Haney a different lesson, one that many U.S. policy-makers seem poised to appreciate: “Persons who engage in crime are different from you and me only in the lives they have lived and the circumstances in which they have acted, and both are things over which they often have relatively little control.”

"California now has a real opportunity to do things differently, to make changes that were unimaginable just a decade ago," he said.