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California’s prison system has a big plan to cut costs

California's budget woes are a rising tide on the state prison system
California's budget woes are a rising tide on the state prison system
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / EPA

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Every state agency has felt California’s budget crunch, and on Monday state prison officials announced a multi-faceted plan that would significantly reduce the budget for California’s crowded prisons. The plan aims to cut costs by reducing overcrowding and ending what prison officials perceive to be intrusive federal oversight of inmate medical and mental health care.

Part of the proposal hinges on realignment ordered by Governor Jerry Brown, which mandates that California’s prisons focus primarily on the most violent and dangerous offenders and transfer lower level offenders to county jails. Relocating minor offenders allows the prison system to eliminate $4.1 billion in construction projects and save an additional $318 million a year by bringing back by 2016 about 9,500 inmates who are currently serving California sentences in private prisons in other states.

"It's a massive change to our system," said Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate at Monday’s press conference. In total, the prison overhaul would save the state $1.5 billion a year and reduce the prison system’s percentage of the state budget from 11 percent to 7.5 percent.

According to Cate, preliminary reports on realignment have been positive, and the cost-cutting plan is the quickest way to solve prison overcrowding.

"We have 22,000 fewer inmates in our prisons from when we began realignment, so we have to act now. We don't have time to wait. The other thing is, the news from the counties have been very encouraging. Most of the counties have reported that they are seeing good public safety results, as the county has been funded, and sheriffs are ramping up and probation departments ... they're doing a great job," he said.

The bad news? State prison officials also announced that they will not meet a planned deadline to reduce the inmate population by 40,000 inmates by the June 2013 deadline. Cate said they'll surpass the benchmark number by 3,000 inmates.

"That's when we'd like to go to the court and hopefully at that point demonstrate we're providing constitutional care at this level, and we would like you to raise the levels that you allow us to keep in the prisons just very slightly," he said Tuesday.

Rebekah Evensen, senior staff attorney on Counsel on Brown v. Plata, the case that resulted in the Supreme Court’s prison crowding reduction order, said it makes sense to continue decreasing the level of crowding, but she thinks the state isn't going far enough.

"The court cap says that the prison system can keep housing 110,000 prisoners in prisons that were built for 80,000. So even under the court order, there are 30,000 more people in prison than the prisons were designed to house, to provide medical care for, to provide mental health care for. And at that level of crowding, it's extremely difficult to provide constitutional levels of care," she explained.

Are these cost cutting measures the right place to trip California’s bloated budget? And is this plan realistic for the largest prison system in the nation?


Matt Cate, Secretary, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Rebekah Evensen, Senior Staff Attorney, Prison Law Office. Counsel on Brown v. Plata, the case that resulted in the Supreme Court’s prison crowding reduction order.

Julie Small, KPCC, State Capitol Reporter