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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

UPDATE: State files court-ordered plan to reduce prison population

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California will seek to reduce inmates' sentences while increasing its use of private prisons to meet a court-ordered population cap by the end of the year, under a plan Gov. Jerry Brown filed late Thursday.

The plan calls for increasing early release credits for inmates and freeing elderly and incapacitated prisoners, while slowing the return of thousands of inmates who are being held in private prisons in other states.

The Democratic governor intends to seek a delay of those steps while he appeals the ruling on overcrowding, which already has been upheld once by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He filed the plan after federal judges last month threatened to cite him for contempt it they find he is not following their previous order to cut the number of inmates.

The state already is sentencing thousands of lower-level offenders to county jails instead of prison, and Brown argues that he can't do more without endangering public safety.

 California needs to shed another 9,300 state inmates after the judges ruled that greatly reducing the prison population is the most effective way to improve medical and mental health care for inmates. Current treatment has been ruled unconstitutional.

 Options in the state plan include:

  • Granting more early release or "good time" credits to inmates, including second-strike inmates who have serious prior convictions.
  •  Releasing elderly and medically incapacitated inmates who are deemed unlikely to commit new crimes.
  • Increasing the use of drug treatment centers.
  • Paying to house more inmates at private prisons within California.
  • Slowing the return of the 8,400 inmates who are being housed in private prisons in three other states at an annual cost of about $300 million.
  • Adding space for 1,700 sick and mentally ill inmates when a new $1 billion treatment facility opens in Stockton this summer.
  • Freeing a projected 900 inmates because voters in November softened the state's tough three-strikes lifetime sentencing law for career criminals. Proposition 36 changed the law to require that the third strike be a violent or serious felony and lets third-strikers with lesser offenses apply for shorter sentences. The administration argued against a proposal to release about 2,800 eligible inmates without a court hearing.

The administration argued against many of the proposals even as it presented the options to the court in a series of legal filings.

Under the court order, the state must reduce the population in its 33 adult prisons to about 110,000 inmates by year's end.

The population already has been reduced by about 25,000 inmates under a two-year-old law that is sending felons convicted of what are deemed to be non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual offenses to county jails instead of state prisons.

Brown argues that most of the less serious offenders already have been filtered out of the state prison system. He also says the state can no longer afford to provide "gold plate" prisons at the expense of schools and other social services.

The federal judges ruled that the state can reduce the prison population by about another 8 percent without increasing crime. Absent a stay of the order, Brown will have to begin moving immediately.

"They could provide increased good-time credits and modestly shorten the terms of people without any effect on public safety at all," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which filed a lawsuit over prison crowding.

Below is the plan and a timeline of events that led to Thursday's filing:

California's response to court order requiring list of proposed population reduction measures; court ordere...

2006:

  • California’s prison population reached an all time high of 173,429 inmates. That was twice the number of inmates the  system was designed to hold. California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) refers to this as “202 percent of design capacity.”
  • CDCR converted gyms and day rooms to dormitories with double- and triple-bunks.
  • Attorneys for inmates in two class-action lawsuits that ordered improvements to medical and mental healthcare asked the U.S. District Court of Northern California to consider whether to cap the population.  Overcrowding, they argued, thwarted efforts to ensure inmates get adequate healthcare.
  • Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons and ordered the immediate transfer of inmates to other states. California has transferred more than 8,000 prisoners.

2007:  

  • The U.S. District Court of Northern California granted the motion to convene a three-judge court that would examine prison conditions.
  • In an effort to prevent judges from imposing a population cap, California lawmakers enacted Assembly Bill 900.  The measure allocated $7 billion to expand prison capacity by 40,000 beds, but only a fraction of funds got released.

2008:

  • The three-judge court held a two-week trial in San Francisco on whether overcrowding is the primary reason why inmates lack access to care.

2009:

  • The judges ruled that overcrowding was the primary reason inmates lacked adequate mental and medical care.

2010:

  • The federal judges ordered California to reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity — a reduction of 40,000 inmates — within two years.
  • California officials appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The prison population cap order was stayed during the appeals process.

2011:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the prison population reduction order. The District Court reinstated its order for California to reduce the inmate population.
  • California's legislature enacted the AB109 Realignment Law, which diverted certain low-level felons and parole violators to counties.  The law took effect in October.

2012:

  • Realignment reduced the state prison population by 25,000 inmates. 

2013:

  • In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared the prison crowding crisis over and filed a motion to vacate the population cap. Inmates, he said, were getting “gold-plated” healthcare at current population levels.
  • In April, the court rejected the motion and ordered state officials to submit and begin implementing a detailed plan by May 2 on how the state will reduce the prison population by 9,500 more inmates by the end of the year.  If the state fails to meet the population cap by then, the federal court may order the early release of those inmates.
  • Judges gave California 100 days to design a system for deciding which inmates pose little threat to the public if they were to be released early.

As of April 24th, California’s prisons held 119,506 inmates. The prisons are at 149.5 percent of design capacity.

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