California officials say shift of low-level felons to counties only way to cap prison crowding

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A guard stands at the entrance to the California State Prison at San Quentin.

California’s prison officials Tuesday released a plan to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons by 30,000.

The state’s been under a federal court order to do that for a couple of years. That order was stayed while California appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But now that the nation’s highest court’s agreed that thinning out the prisoner population is the only way to ensure inmates get basic medical and psychiatric care, California has two years to comply.

California prison officials plan to shift 40,000 low-level, low-risk offenders to the counties. Lawmakers already enacted the change. But the new law AB 109 won’t take effect in July unless lawmakers also pass a budget that funds it.

Secretary of Corrections Matthew Cate says it’s the state’s best option. "We’re out of time and we’re out of room and so we’ve got to get this done. If it doesn’t happen, and if 109 doesn’t get funded and 109 isn’t implemented, then we’re in trouble."

But Republicans aren’t buying that. San Bernardino Senator Sharon Runner says the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has $7 billion authorized to build more beds at existing prisons.

Runner says she and many of her Republican colleagues voted for a bill to allocate the money four years ago, "because we believed we needed to work on this crisis before it came to this point."

Runner says the prison expansion plan was stalled in a legislative committee that Democrats control. "I think they don’t want to build more beds because they want to get rid of their prisoners because they want to do their re-entry. You know, 'They aren’t really bad people, they just need more help.'"

Sharon Runner wrote “Jessica’s Law” – the measure restricts sex offenders from living near schools and parks. She says she doesn’t believe state prisons house any “low-level,” “low-risk” inmates that it can shift to counties safely. She says prison officials should ask the federal court for more time to expand prison capacity and come up with a better plan.

But Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate says that would be a big mistake. "I think it would be irresponsible to just say we’re going to do nothing, go back to the same three judges that set this two-year mark to start with and cross our fingers."

California has to hit its first benchmark for inmate population reduction in November. The prisons are expected to house 10,000 fewer inmates by then.

Rebekah Evenson with the Prison Law Office says she’d be surprised if the court granted California more time to meet the deadline. "Those deadlines are tracked directly on the population reduction benchmarks that the state itself said it could meet in 2009."

That’s when the judges first granted the Prison Law Offices motion to cap California’s Prison population. Even though California appealed the order the judges compelled state to officials to submit a plan, to be ready for the day the cap took effect.

"The state has built its current plan for reducing the prison population on AB109," says Evenson, "the realignment plan which requires funding the state has available to it that are equally safe and equally effective should AB109 not pan out."

California outlined those options two years ago when it submitted its first plan to reduce prison crowding. Back then, Corrections said the state could place low-level offenders under house arrest and use GPS monitoring devices or other alternative punishments for low-level offenders.

It looked at changing some sentences for certain non-violent offenses so that people who commit grand theft or write bad checks serve their time in county jails. It also relied on sending more inmates to prisons in other states and adding more cells in existing prisons.

If California does nothing to reduce the population by November the court could order the release of inmates. Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate says that’s what the state’s trying to prevent with the realignment plan.

Map: California state prisons and prison populations

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