Five years ago, California’s state prisons were full to bursting – over 170,000 inmates housed in 33 facilities. Civil rights groups decried the overcrowded conditions, which included prisoners bunked three to a cell or in outdoor pens and inmates with severe medical and mental health issues that were going untreated, sometimes resulting in death. Things got so bad that a federal court in 2009 ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 40,000 within two years.
Realignment practices have included transferring prisoners to county facilities or out of state (at a cost of over half a million dollars a day) and early release of lesser offenders, but the number of prisoners is still more than 9,000 above what the federal judges ordered. But despite the fact that some state facilities are still well over capacity and prison rights groups continue to lobby for further reductions, Governor Jerry Brown announced today that California has sufficiently reduced its prison population and there’s no need to do more.
Last night state lawyers filed papers last night to challenge the targets set by the U.S. Supreme Court, saying “the overcrowding and healthcare conditions cited by this court to support its population reduction order are now a distant memory.” The state, they say, now provides adequate medical care to inmates. County facilities have struggled with the influx of state prisoners thanks to realignment, and communities have protested the early release of felons. A previously convicted gang member who is suspected in a recent Pasadena homicide turns out to have been released from a two-year prison term a month early under realignment guidelines, leading to renewed objections to the practice.
Should California be forced to comply with the federal ruling, even if they can show that conditions have improved sufficiently? How can the state balance its overcrowded prisons with the need for public safety? Are the monetary and societal costs of realignment justified? If we do need more room, is the answer more prisons, or more lenient sentencing?
Governor Jerry Brown
Don Specter, director, Prison Law Office
Julie Small, KPCC reporter