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California has options on prisoner releases

Unless a court intercedes, California will have to reduce its prison population by about 9,500 inmates by the end of the year.
Unless a court intercedes, California will have to reduce its prison population by about 9,500 inmates by the end of the year.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

After federal judges on Thursday ordered California to shed more than 9,000 inmates from prisons by the end of the year, Gov. Jerry Brown said the state would request an "immediate stay" of the ruling.

While the state awaits a response, it must be prepared for a denial, which would mean implementing the reduction plan corrections officials submitted in May.

The plan addresses a 2009 order the judges issued to limit the number of inmates state prisons can hold to 110,000. The court did that to relieve overcrowding it determined had caused inmates to fall ill or even die from treatable or mild diseases because they lacked access to basic medical and mental healthcare.

When the state submitted its plan, this is how Secretary of Corrections James Beard described the approach: “We provided a plan which consisted of the best of the bad options.”

The plan moves thousands of inmates into new prison medical facilities in Stockton, and slows down the return of inmates sent to other states to serve their terms. The plan also increases credits that inmates at minimum-security facilities can earn to reduce their sentences, and would expand medical and elderly parole.

But the plan falls short. Federal judges said California officials must find a way to shed 4,100 more inmates.

They ordered the state to adopt an option that didn’t make the A-list: sentence reduction credits for certain violent felons who aren’t eligible for them now would nearly finish the job, the judges observed.  But at what cost?

Robert Weisberg, a professor with Stanford’s Criminal Justice Institute, says reducing a sentence by a few months is unlikely to have any effect on recidivism rates: “If you haven’t scared the guy out of committing crime or rehabilitated him out of committing crime in three and half years, it’s not likely to happen in four years.”

Weisberg says, however, expanding the credit system is a big and lasting change for the prison system. He says it’s too bad the state didn’t plan to expand capacity earlier on.  Now he says, it’s too late to build their way out of its dilemma.

Even if officials expand the credits, an increase in the prison population and delays in construction on two new facilities in Stockton could force them to face the court’s nuclear option: the federal judges have warned they'll order the immediate release of prisoners who pose the lowest risk to the public if state officials don’t achieve the full reductions by December 31.  They told the state to prepare a list of those prisoners.