California presents long-overdue plan to reduce prison overcrowding

Overcrowding conditions at Mule Creek State Prison. PHOTO SOURCE: CA Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

California prison officials presented a plan to address the state’s prison overcrowding after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal court ruling in May that ordered California to reduce its prison population by 10,000 inmates within six months and by another 30,000 inmates within two years.

Overcrowding conditions at Mule Creek State Prison. PHOTO SOURCE: CA Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

California’s 33 prisons now hold approximately 140,000 inmates, nearly double the maximum holding capacity of 79,858 inmates. The severe overcrowding has led to chronic shortages in basic medical and mental health care for inmates, including a case where a mentally-ill inmate was found nearly catatonic and standing in a pool of his own urine inside a telephone-booth size cage because prison officials had “no place to put him.”

The Supreme Court ruled that California’s state prisons have repeatedly violated the “minimum constitutional requirements” by failing “to meet the prisoners’ basic health needs” due to overcrowding.

“Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison systems,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “Overcrowding has overtaken the limited resources of prison staff; imposed demands well beyond the capacity of medical and mental health facilities; and created unsanitary and unsafe conditions that make progress in the provision of care difficult or impossible to achieve.”

California’s plan to relieve prison overcrowding includes:

  • Transferring 10,000 inmates to out-of-state prisons;
  • Building new prisons, health care, and mental health facilities and converting juvenile detentions centers to adult facilities;
  • Moving low-level, non-violent offenders to county jails as part of the “Realignment” plan outlined in Assembly Bill 109 signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in April. This would free up space for the state to focus on incarcerating serious, violent, and sexual offenders.

Funding for AB 109 will depend on the temporary tax extensions included in Brown’s proposed 2012 state budget; Brown still lacks the Republican votes to get the two-thirds majority necessary to pass the budget in the state legislature.

“Our goal is to meet the Court’s order by continuing to reduce prison crowding while still holding offenders accountable,” said Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Our current reduction plan does not include the early release of inmates. But it is absolutely critical that the Legislature understand the seriousness of the Supreme Court’s decision and support a variety of measures that will allow us to lower our inmate population in the safest possible way. AB 109 is the cornerstone of the solution, and the Legislature must act to protect public safety by funding realignment.”

The California Republican Assembly Caucus opposed the proposed realignment, arguing the move would endanger public safety while increasing taxes. “The Brown administration continues to use scare tactics to push the Governor’s dangerous realignment proposal which would permanently create a program funded with temporary taxes,” said Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare. “The Governor’s misguided realignment proposal doesn’t make the case for taxes – in fact, it makes the case against taxes: why should voters pay more taxes only to put their families’ lives in danger?” Conway proposes building more prison beds and contracting with out-of-state prisons or private in-state detention facilities to address the overcrowding.

If the state legislature does not approve funding for AB 109 and California fails to meet the Nov. 28 deadline to cut the prison population by 10,000, Cate told KPCC that federal judges could order California to release the inmates.


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