The Catalyst: Thelton Henderson transformed California’s criminal justice system. Now comes the backlash.

Thelton Henderson, 84, became a lawyer during the civil rights era, and that moral framework and activist energy guided his work. When he joined the federal bench, he presided over a series of prison cases that ultimately forced radical changes in the system.

Creating change wasn’t always easy, and in the beginning Henderson fought an uphill battle.

“I think the thing you have to understand is that people on the front line don’t like to be told to change,” Henderson said. “They resist things.”

He described his method as the catalyst approach, after an academic theory developed by a Columbia University professor on the way courts could be used to change bureaucratic systems. It was similar to the approach he’d tried with Pelican Bay—encourage everyone involved to buy into a solution, and long-term change will happen.

But when he saw how slowly change happened—and how many people were dying—he felt he had no choice but to take over all 33 prisons. No judge in the country had done anything on that scale.

“Appointing a receiver pushed my powers to the very, very limit,” the judge recalled. “I can’t think of a thing I could have done beyond that. I think it pushed them because it was unprecedented. There was nothing out there that says here’s how you take over a state medical system.”

The prisoners’ lawyers argued that change couldn’t happen until overcrowding was fixed. Henderson and two other judges formed a three-judge panel to oversee the prison system. They ordered the state to reduce its prison population, which at the time of the lawsuit was an astounding 181 percent of capacity, to 137.5 percent.

The state fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where a 5-4 majority led by Justice Anthony Kennedy found that Henderson and the other judges were within their powers to force the state to cut its prison population. In an unusual move, the justices appended photos of the suicide cages and gyms full of bunk beds to the decision.

The governor was forced to reckon with the overcrowding, and eventually became a champion of criminal justice experiments that went far beyond the court’s order. He supported realignment, a plan to shift thousands of people from state prisons to county jails. He then helped push Proposition 47, a ballot measure that reclassified a number of nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors that no longer carried a state prison sentence. And he was a strong advocate for Proposition 57, which changed the state’s parole system to offer earlier releases.

Henderson contends there are still improvements to be made. He advocates a parole board of people from various backgrounds, not just law enforcement. He wants better conditions in county jails that now house former state prisoners.

But a backlash is building, sparked by fears that the changes have led to an increase in crime.


From The Marshall Project.

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