California presents “ugly” plan to comply with court order to reduce inmate population
California’s top prison official has submitted an “ugly” plan to comply with a federal court’s order to reduce the state’s prison population to 137.5% of design capacity by the end of 2013.
“The plan is ugly. We don’t like it. But considering the inmates we have left in our prison population, it’s the best plan that we could come up with,” said Jeffrey Beard, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). “We’ve provided a plan which consisted of the best of the bad options.”
Read more: California prison mental health system
The plan, filed on May 3, would increase prison capacity by:
- opening the 1,722-bed California Health Care Facility in Stockton in July;
- expanding the fire camp by 2,500 low-level offense inmates;
- leasing about 1,600 jail beds from Los Angeles and Alameda counties,
- continuing to transfer inmates to out-of-state prisons through June 30th and slowing their rate of return;
- and leasing and retrofitting private prison facilities, which would be operated by state prison guards.
The state would also look to reduce the inmate population by:
- increasing credits that can be earned by minimum custody inmates and non-violent second strike offenders so they can be released earlier;
- expanding the medical parole program to include “offenders who suffer from a significant and permanent condition, disease, or syndrome resulting in the offender being physically or cognitively debilitated or incapacitated”;
- and considering parole for low-risk elderly inmates who have served lengthy prison terms.
Beard pointed out that with the exception of the fire camp expansion and the opening of the Stockton facility, every measure proposed would require approval by the California legislature because “it either requires more money or it requires some change in state law.”
“[The state] will take the unusual step of drafting legislative language for these measures and will submit that language for the legislature for its consideration. Once the draft language is submitted, obviously it will be up to the legislature to determine whether the language should be introduced as a bill and advanced through the legislative process,” according to the state’s court filing.
If all the measure is approved by the legislature and implemented, CDCR estimated that it would achieve reduction of about 7,000 inmates by the end of 2013. However, the reduction would still fall 2,570 inmates short – or within 2.2% – of the 137.5% benchmark.
“There is simply no way that we could meet the court’s number by the end of this year without adding more responsibilities on the counties, jeopardizing realignment and adversely affecting the public safety,” Beard explained. “Our hope is that will be suitable for the court and as we move forward.”
Beard said the state submitted the plan to avoid contempt of court charges. The state’s request to vacate the 137.5% of design capacity cap and lift federal oversight of its prison mental health system was rejected in April by a federal judge, who found “ongoing constitutional violations” and “systemic failures” in providing adequate care to mentally ill inmates due to “insufficient treatment space” and “unmet staffing needs.”
The 137.5% of design capacity cap, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, was ordered by a three-judge panel as a result of two lawsuits – Plata v. Brown and Coleman v. Brown – that linked California’s severe prison overcrowding to the denial of basic medical and mental health care to prisoners, inflicting unnecessary suffering in violation of the Eight Amendment which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”(When the three-judge panel first heard considered the lawsuits in 2006, California’s prison system held 162,500 inmates or 202% of design capacity.)
To alleviate the prison overcrowding, California Gov. Jerry Brown initiated the so-called “Public Safety Realignment” in October 2011. Under realignment, the state has shifted the responsibility for incarcerating and the parole oversight of low-level or non-violent felons to county governments, thereby allowing the state to focus on incarcerating serious and violent offenders.
Since realignment began, the state has reduced the prison population by about 25,000 inmates. As of April 24, the state prison population was 119,506 or 149.5% of design capacity.
“This is an unprecedented undertaking – something that has not been done before in California, and something that has not been done anywhere in this nation,” said Beard, who testified for the prisoners seeking population reduction and access to care in 2008. “I am speaking the truth today when I say that this is a different system. This is a system that is delivering quality care – a constitutional level of care. Any further forced reductions in our population is both unnecessary and unsafe.”
Overview of CDCR’s plan to meet the court-ordered 137.5% design capacity cap by December 2013:
Proposed measures to increase prison capacity:
- California Health Care Facility in Stockton – reduction of 1,722 inmates
- Fire camp expansion – reduction of 2,500 inmates
- Lease additional jail beds from Los Angeles and Alameda counties – reduction of 1,600 inmates
- Continued transfer of inmates to out-of-state prisons through June 30, 2013 – reduction of 4,065 inmates
Proposed measures to reduce inmate population:
- Allow minimum custody inmates to receive 2 for 1 credit – reduction of 148 inmates
- Raise the limit of credits allowed for non-violent second strike offenders from 20% to 34% – reduction of 62 inmates
- Expand medical parole – reduction of 150 inmates
- Offer parole for low-risk elderly inmates who have served lengthy prison terms – reduction of 250 inmates
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: California Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard’s remarks on the state’s new plan to reduce prison population – May 3, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: Transcript: Press briefing Q&A with California Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard on the state’s new plan to reduce prison population – May 3, 2013
- WhatTheFolly.com: California prison mental health system
- cdcr.ca.gov: Defendents’ Response to April 11, 2013 Order Requiring List of Proposed Population Reduction Measures; Court-Ordered Plan (PDF)
- cdcr.ca.gov: Three-judge court updates