Crime & Justice

What are California’s best options for reducing state prison population?

California prisons, such as Mule Creek State Prison in Ione will be forced to reduce population sizes following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
California prisons, such as Mule Creek State Prison in Ione will be forced to reduce population sizes following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
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The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling on Tuesday to force California to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.

It’s the largest prisoner release order in U.S. history but it’s not a surprise. The state prison system has been overcrowded for years and the cases that the Supreme Court ruled on is over a decade old.

California prison officials, lawmakers and three governors knew this day might come. Now that it has, here's what it means for California.

By a 5-to-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a panel of three federal judges was within its authority when it ordered California to cut its prison population to improve health care for inmates.

Attorney Don Spector with the Prison Law Office argued the prison population reduction is the only way to ensure inmates won’t suffer or even die from a lack of care. “If we had lost this decision, prison officials throughout the country would have been free to jam as many prisoners as they wanted to into prisons and jails regardless of whether the prisoners’ basic human needs were being met,” says Spector.

The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the prison population cap takes effect immediately. That means California has two years to reduce the number of inmates in the state prison.

Spector says the order dictates only the timeframe. The state decides the details. “The gates of California prisons aren’t going to be opened, and 30,000 prisoners aren’t going to walk out tomorrow,” says Spector. “The court ordered a very slow, conscientious process that gives state prison and law enforcement officials compete discretion on how to accomplish it.”

California officials have a couple of weeks to finalize a blueprint to shrink the prison population.

Secretary of Corrections Matthew Cate is urging support for the public safety realignment plan that Governor Jerry Brown signed in April. It shifts thousands of low-level, low-risk non-violent inmates from state to county supervision. The majority are ex-convicts that now get sent back to state prison for three months when they violate parole.

“Probably the best part of realignment is having short-term offenders serve their time locally,” Cate says.

Secretary Cate says those inmates churn through the state prison system over and over again. They clog it up – and tap out scarce resources. Cate thinks prison money would be better spent on incarcerating and monitoring the more dangerous criminals and rehabilitating the ones they can.

“We could have a successful prison program in California if we didn’t have the shackle of 'churning' around our ankle,” Cate insists.

But state lawmakers have yet to fund the realignment plan. Governor Brown wants them to approve a series of tax extensions to pay for it and have voters ratify those extensions later this year.

The governor hasn’t found the handful of Republicans he needs to vote for that because Republican leaders hate the plan. Assembly minority budget chair Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) says realignment doesn't makes sense. “You have someone victimized by someone who is either put in the local jail or prison. And if you’re going to put them in the local jail, then you’re going to let somebody who was a local commit out."

If Brown can’t convince enough Republicans to support realignment, there’s another option. Lawmakers could allocate money from the existing prison budget to pay for it. If there’s no money for realignment, Secretary Cate says California will have to come up with a totally new plan.

“I think we do kind of have to start over, and say in light of today’s economic realities, in light of what’s been rejected in realignment, what options do you have left?" says Cate. "Send more inmates out of state? Do some modest construction? Shut the doors on short-term offenders in one way or another? But frankly none of [the options] are very attractive.”

California’s already transferred 10,000 prisoners to facilities in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma to reduce overcrowding. Cate says he’ll look to increase that. As for those low-level, non-violent parole violators, the Corrections secretary says the state might have to reduce their sentences.