Officials Seek More Time to Address Prison Overcrowding

Attorneys for prisoners, and state and local officials asked federal judges today for another month to try and reach an agreement to reduce the state's prison population by tens of thousands of inmates. Sounds tough, but the alternative could be worse. A three-judge panel is considering whether to limit California's prison population, which could mean things like releasing prisoners early. KPCC's Julie Small was at the San Francisco courthouse for the proceeding.

Shirley Jahad: No agreement yet, but more time to talk in the effort to relieve overcrowding in the perilous state prison systems. Attorneys for prisoners and state and local officials asked federal judges today for another month to try and reach an agreement to reduce the state's prison population by tens of thousands of inmates.

Sounds tough, but the alternative could be worse. A three-judge panel is considering whether to limit California's prison population, which could mean things like releasing prisoners early. KPCC's Julie Small was at the San Francisco courthouse for the proceeding, and she joins us now live. Good afternoon, Julie.

Julie Small: Good afternoon, Shirley.

Jahad: First, let's talk about the settlement itself. Basically, it calls for sending prisoners who would normally go to a state prison institution to serve their time instead in a county facility instead, in rehab or in a county jail, or even in house arrest. We're talking about 40,000 fewer inmates winding up in the state prison system as a result, but parties in the lawsuit say they have some problems with that, right?

Small: Yes they did. Assemblyman Todd Spitzer of Orange County showed up at the courtroom today to express his greatest concern, mainly that under the settlement agreement, and mind you, these details of the settlement agreement are still, they're still secret, so what came out in court was we got a little more glimpse into this.

But he said there's a provision in there that would allow the corrections department to, in some circumstances, release prisoners early if they weren't meeting their prison population cap target. There's also this idea of something called "summary parole" where you release prisoners from state prison, and you don't have them supervised. It's kind of an unsupervised parole, where you could do some kind of spot raid or check on them, but you're not, like, monitoring them constantly.

And then the third thing that he objected to, which is one of the main tools of the settlement agreement, is this idea of diversion. You know, that you're not sending people to state prison that would normally go, but you're instead sending them to the counties. And he said that's a big problem. Counties have enough to deal with, especially with other plans that the state has in motion right now to create these things called reentry facilities where inmates serve the last 16 to 18 months of their sentences in county facilities.

That's something the state is trying to ramp up, and he said why add this burden to that at this time? And the other thing he asked for was that the court make the settlement agreement public. He said he needed more time to discuss the provisions with the legislature.

He's representing the Republican legislators, but he also, you know, thought, by opening it and making it more public, then you could actually have a much better debate, and a much greater understanding, in the public, in the legislature, about what the settlement agreement actually does.

Jahad: Well, you already talked about this; I mean, particularly now with the tough budget times, the settlement adding a lot of burden on county agencies, and they're already expressing a lot of concern and angst about that, right?

Small: Yeah, they're very worried, you know. Will they have the money and the resources? The counties say the state's not going to offer them enough assistance for this program to succeed, and even if they had money, they lack staff, they lack space, you know, to house more people, or put them on probation.

One attorney there, Anne Keck, was representing Sonoma county, said she's particularly frustrated 'cause she hasn't been able to express these concerns about the settlement because she's not actually part of the negotiation. Um, and she's most worried, and in fact I guess most of the counties are most worried about this idea that the corrections department could, if they don't meet their reduction in population within the state prisons, they could actually release prisoners early. They do not like that idea at all.

Jahad: Well, with all the obstacles and the challenges to reaching an agreement, what are the chances there will be a settlement within the next month?

Small: Well, the attorney for inmates, Don Specter, says he thinks a solution can be reached if all the parties stay focused on the goal, which is to reduce the prison population, and he says that's something that is in the best interest of all parties.

Don Specter: You have to send less people to prison, and there has to be ways to do that. So if all of the local officials have some concern about any of those methods, and they don't like them, and the reason they don't like them is because they let more people out of prison.

So I mean, it's a circular argument, and people have to be willing to face the fact that, if we're going to settle the case, they have to voluntarily agree to have some of these people stay in their communities, hopefully in programs, but not go back to prison. Otherwise, if we don't settle the case, judges are going to order that the prisoners be released, and they'll be back in the communities anyway.

Small: Yeah, and Specter says, you know, to keep the heat on, the federal judges said they'll set a November trial date, so if the settlement fails, the judges will go ahead and set a calendar for that, and that trial's focused on whether to cap California's prison population, and if so, how to do it.

Jahad: KPCC's Julie Small joining us from San Francisco. Thanks very much, Julie.

Small: Thank you, Shirley.

Jahad: This is 89.3, KPCC.

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