State budget: California expected to spend less on prisons in coming years

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Corcoran State Prison is one of the state's 33 facilities. State officials hope to dramatically cut the prison budget in coming years.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is hoping to reduce its share of the state's budget over the next few years. According to Corrections Secretary Matt Cate, CDCR will take its portion of the of the general fund down to 7.5 percent in the 2015-16 fiscal year. As a comparison, CDCR, which is the state's biggest and highest funded agency, got 11 percent of the general fund in 2008-09. 

"That'll allow us to get a handle on overall general fund spending, but also allow us opportunites for funding higher education and other priorities," Cate said. 

The savings will come mostly from:

  • Not having as many inmates: under prison realignment, the counties take responsibility for low-level offenders, which means they won't be the state's responsiblity;
  • Not having as many parolees: the parole load is expected to go way down, also a function of realignment;
  • Closing facilities — specifically, the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco — and not building as many new prisons as previously proposed, meaning the state will not cash in on $4.1 billion in building bonds;
  • And the Division of Juvenile Justice, which will not keep kids as long, along with juvenile parole, which will be completely eliminated.

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Change to juvenile prison time could save state millions

Gov. Jerry Brown

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California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the state budget late Wednesday.

Deep inside the state budget signed Wednesday night, lies a small clause that could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars — and save juveniles in the state's youth correctional system years of incarceration.

Sumayyah Waheed of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights said juvenile "time adds," which were eliminated through the new budget, are disciplinary measures taken by correctional officers in the Division of Juvenile Justice.

When youth are sentenced to the state's juvenile prison system, they're generally given an indeterminate time to serve. A juvenile might be sentenced to a minimum in custody, like a year, with the date set for their first opportunity for parole. That date frequently gets bumped back, over and over, through time adds. Time adds, administered by a correctional officer, are not overseen by a judge or a parole board, and prevent juveniles from having the opportunity to be considered for release.

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California 'ahead of schedule' at reducing prison population, says corrections chief

California State Prisons Face Overcrowding Issues

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Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison sit near their bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in Ione, California, 2007.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says they're ahead of schedule in reducing the state's prison population. By this time, a federal court said they needed to be at 124,000 inmates to be on their way to making prisons comply with constitutional standards. Instead, CDCR announced Wednesday, they're currently at 121,129, well under the court's requirement.

California's prison population peaked at 170,794 in 2006 and dwindled for a few years after. Since the Supreme Court upheld an order to reduce overcrowding in 2011, the state has taken hefty steps to quickly empty the prisons. The most effective (and controversial) of those steps has been prison realignment, which eliminated prison as a punishment option for low-leverl offenders who commit mostly drug and property crimes.

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Reporters can't currently request interviews with specific prisoners; new bill would change that law

Pelican Bay SHU

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The "Secure Housing Unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison.

A bill that supporters say would make California's prison system more transparent passed out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee Tuesday, its first stop on a potentially long journey. The bill, AB1270, would allow reporters to request interviews with specific prison inmates, which is prohibited under current law. 

The issue rose in public consciousness last year when a hunger strike began in the highly restricted Security Housing Units (SHU's) at Pelican Bay State Prison and spread to prisons throughout the state. Strike participants demanded better conditions in the SHU's and a change to policies that keep inmates in isolation cells indefinitely. 

During the strike, media outlets requested interviews with hunger strike leaders and other SHU inmates, but were denied access. After the strike was over, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation led a press tour of the prison, including portions of the SHU, and permitted media to speak with selected inmates. The inmates did not include hunger strike leaders. 

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Judge supports end to federal oversight of prison healthcare, with some conditions

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California Prison Health Care Services

The federal receiver spent $135 million on a new San Quentin Health Facility, as part of system wide improvements.

Federal District Judge Thelton Henderson released an order Wednesday regarding California's plan for getting its prison medical system out from under federal receivership. The big question was whether Henderson would allow the transition to happen before the receiver's full turn-around plan had been put in place. According to KPCC's Julie Small, who has followed the prison medical care issue closely, the order supports the state's plan, but with a few conditions. First, the state will have to demonstrate as good or better prison health care as the receiver has provided. Second, the state will have to finish infrastructure improvements. And the state will have to institutionalize the receivers's changes to prison healthcare in state law, regulations and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation operations manual. 

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