California's prison problem: Some potential short-term solutions, and ones that are already working

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. James Sullivan/Getty Images

California is drawing up plans to reduce its inmate population by roughly 30,000 inmates, or find other ways to comply with a federal court order, that it has to submit by next Tuesday. But officials aren’t starting from scratch — they've already made some changes that have eased overcrowding and could continue to pay off.

Four years ago, California held 170,000 inmates in prisons designed for 80,000. Attorneys for inmates in two class action law suits convinced a federal court to consider capping the prison population. They claimed that the conditions thwarted the court’s own orders to improve prison medical and mental healthcare so inadequate that prisoners were dying from it.

That year, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed the legislature to reduce prison crowding instead of waiting for the court to order it. State lawmakers passed a $7 billion prison expansion project. Although funding stalled, the project has generated plans for 18,000 new prison beds in varying stages of completion.

Schwarzenegger also transferred 10,000 inmates to private prisons in other states. Lawmakers also changed parole laws to reduce the number of inmates who return to prison.

Now, California prisons hold about 30,000 fewer inmates than they did four years ago. As new correctional facilities come on line they could further ease the crowding.

But there are also a laundry list of additional possible solutions: Gov. Jerry Brown could issue an executive order to transfer thousands of more inmates to privately run prisons in other states. Transferring more would be one of the quickest ways to reduce overcrowding without increasing costs.

It also would buy California more time to try to shift thousands of low-level, non-violent offenders with shorter prison terms to county jails. State lawmakers have enacted a plan to do that, but they haven’t figured out how to pay for it.

The governor wants them to pass a tax extension toward that end, but he doesn’t have the Republican votes he needs to make it happen. Alternatively, the legislature could appropriate some of next year’s prison budget to help counties ramp up so they can absorb more inmates in anticipation of long-term state money.

Corrections officials say counties could use the money to reopen shuttered jails and hire more people to staff them.

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