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CA prisons chief says state remains at odds with federal court order

California Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard (seen here in a file photo) said Friday
California Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard (seen here in a file photo) said Friday "We don’t think we need to do any more" to reduce the state's prison population.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Less than 12 hours after California followed a court order and submitted a plan for reducing its prison population, the state's prisons chief called it “the best of the bad options.” 

Speaking at a press conference Friday morning, Secretary of Corrections Jeffrey Beard said, "We don’t think we need to do any more, and that’s why we haven’t submitted a plan before this.  We’re only doing this under court order.”

Last month, a panel of three District Court judges court ordered California officials to determine  how to shed 9,500 inmates from state prison system before year's end. It was the latest development in a legal fight dating to 2009 when the judges ruled that overcrowding was the primary reason inmates lacked adequate mental and medical care.

The following year, the judges ordered California to reduce the prison population by 40,000 inmates within two years. The state's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied. Despite sending large numbers of inmates to county jails, the state has struggled to meet the federal mandate.

On Friday, Beard insisted that California is meeting adequate standards: “These prisons are providing a constitutional level of care." Beard also said further prisoner reductions are both unnecessary and dangerous.

Governor Jerry Brown has vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already sided against the state once before in this matter.

The judges asked for a menu of options in order of most to least preferred.

The state plan would ease prison crowding mainly by building, or finding, more room for inmates. However, almost every one one of the state's proposals would requires legislation or money. State Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told KPCC Friday that while he supports Brown's management of the prisons,  he doesn't anticipate much legislative support for the inmate reduction plan.

This year, the  Corrections department is expected to open a prison medical facility in Stockton that will house more than 1,700 inmates.  The agency is also retrofitting an adjoining facility that will provide 1,100 new beds for inmates who are severely mentally ill.

The state will also be able to shift 1,200 more inmates to minimum security fire camps due to a change in how California assesses the risks inmates pose to public safety.

Secretary Beard says the department will also seek to lease 1,600 beds at county jails — including in Los Angeles — and private prisons in the state.  Corrections staff, he said, would oversee those inmates.

California would also allow higher risk inmates  who participate in rehabilitation programs to receive good time credits that would shorten their sentences. That change, which would require legislative approval, is expected to reduce the population by roughly 300 inmates.

Beard said once released, those inmates would go on state parole, sparing overwhelmed county probation departments.  Beard said he would not apply good time credits retroactively, because it would mean the immediate release of dangerous and violent prisoners. 

The state would expand medical parole and community housing for certain elderly, infirm inmates and some female inmates. He gave no estimate of how many prisoners might qualify.

Lastly, Beard said changes enacted through Prop 36 are expected to speed up the release of 700 third-strikers whose second offense was not violent.   

Beard said altogether the plan is about 2,500 inmates short of the court order, but within two percent of the goal. Beard said the plan could reach the court’s target  by next year.

If not, the court might choose from a list of less ideal options the state included in its plan.

Those include a number of changes that would result in early release for more prisoners convicted of more violent offenses, including people sentenced toLife with a possibility of parole.


--ACTION: construction of new facility for acute care; WHERE: Stockton medical facility; # OF INMATES: 1,722

--ACTION: expansion of facility for mentally ill; WHERE: DeWitt Nelson correctional annex in Stockton; # OF INMATES: 1,133

--ACTION: expansion of  fire camp eligibility, allowing some serious and violent felons to participate; # OF INMATES: 1,250

--ACTION: lease more beds in local jails; WHERE: Los Angeles and Alameda counties; # OF INMATES: 1,600

--ACTION: expand inmate eligibility for good-time credits for minimum security inmates (excluding sex offenders); # OF INMATES: 148

--ACTION: medical parole for elderly and infirm; # OF INMATES: unknown

--ACTION: re-sentencing of 3 strikers as per Prop 36 ; # OF INMATES: 900