California asks court for 3-year extension to comply with prison population cap

IMAGE SOURCE: California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Monday filed a request for a three-year extension to comply with the 137.5% of design capacity population cap ordered by a three-judge panel to alleviate the state’s chronic and severe prison overcrowding. 

The deadline for compliance – which had been extended for 6 months – is Dec. 31, 2013. As of Sept. 11th, the state’s prison population was 120,027, amounting to 147.1% of design capacity or 9.6% short of the cap. Absent an extension, this means the state will have to release about 8,500 inmates by the end of the year to meet the court’s requirement. Gov. Jerry Brown and state prison officials argued that further early release of inmates early would jeopardize public safety.

Read more: Supreme Court declines to halt order to reduce CA’s prison population pending appeal

The extension request was filed in federal court following the passage of SB 105, which proposed two approaches to comply with the court-ordered prison population cap. SB 105 is expected to cost $315 million over three years.

The first approach – preferred by Brown and state lawmakers – would necessitate the court’s approval of the three-year extension. Under the preferred approach, the state would:

1) Expand capacity by leasing and transferring approximately 2,500 inmates to beds in county jails, local correction facilities, and private prisons in California;

2) Postpone the return of 9,000 inmates currently housed in out-of-state facilities but will not lease additional beds outside of California;

3) Allocate an initial $75 million to the newly-established Recidivism Reduction Fund to pay for “activities designed to reduce the state’s prison population, including but not limited to, reducing recidivism”. (California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation. Nearly 70% of inmates are returned to state prison within three years of their release.) Furthermore, 50% of the savings from not having to send additional prisoners out-of-state will be allocated to the Recidivism Reduction Fund;

4) Increase funding for SB 678, which rewards county probation departments with more money for successfully diverting “felony probationers who have violated probation into rehabilitative programs instead of returning them to prison”, by about $100 million than what is projected for fiscal year 2014-15. The money appropriated under SB 678 are used by counties to fund “evidence-based rehabilitative programs, including drug and alcohol treatment, mental health treatment, anger management, and job training.” SB 678 has been credited with preventing 15,000 probationers from returning to state prison from 2011 to 2013;

5) And require the Brown administration to begin developing long-term reforms for the state prison system, including efforts “to reduce recidivism and improve the criminal justice system”. The Department of Finance would have to submit the administration’s report to the state legislature by April 1, 2014 and the final report is due by Jan. 10, 2015.

The second approach outlined how the state would proceed if the three-judge panel declines to grant the extension. If the Dec. 31st deadline is upheld, the state would then focus most of the $315 million on expanding prison capacity primarily by leasing prison beds in out-of-state facilities because “they will be able to transfer inmates into out-of-state facilities at a faster rate and in bigger numbers than they are able to transfer into in-state facilities.”

“Without an extension, [the state] will be forced to use the money appropriated under SB 105 to reach the 137.5% cap by sending thousands of additional inmates out of state. With the requested extension, the state will have the time and flexibility to achieve SB 105’s objective of developing durable measures to reduce recidivism, promote public safety, and further the fairness and effectiveness of our criminal justice system,” according to the state’s request.

Background on the prison population cap

The three-judge panel’s order in Coleman v. Brown and Plata v. Brown – two class action lawsuits that successfully proved inmates were denied constitutional-level of mental health and medical care due to severe prison overcrowding – was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2011.

Later that year, California enacted the public safety “realignment”, which shifted the incarceration and parole supervision for non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual felons to local governments thereby alleviating much of the overcrowding pressures on the state prison system, allowing the state to focus on serious offenders.

However, the inmate population reductions achieved under realignment has hit the point of diminishing return, and state officials claimed that they cannot meet 137.5% cap without early releases of inmates.

Read more: Three-judge panel compels California to expand “good time” credits to comply with federal order to reduce prison population

In June, the three-judge panel ordered the state to expand good time credits to meet the court’s deadline, citing state officials’ “defiance” and “deliberate failure” to fix the severe prison overcrowding problem. (The court issued the order after Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration knowingly filed a plan in May that would fall well short of meeting the 137.5% benchmark.)

Brown filed another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, it is unclear whether the high court would grant certiorari on case it ruled on just two years ago, and Justice Anthony Kennedy declined to stay the three judges’ orders to compel the state to meet the population cap by the end of the year.

Brown and state lawmakers – including Democratic and Republican leaders in the Assembly and Senate – have staunchly opposed any more early releases, arguing that most low-risk offenders have already been released under realignment and that local governments are already being strained from handling the influx of inmates in county jails.

“Implementing a mass release of this scale would necessarily encompass more than nonviolent, low-risk offenders, and reach into offenders who are deemed to present higher-level risks to public safety,” according to the state’s court filing. “Moreover, these offenders would be released into communities that lack the institutional capacity at this time to absorb more offenders than they are currently handling under realignment…Releasing inmates into communities that lack resources to provide the necessary supervision, treatment, and reentry services will degrade existing services, heighten risks to public safety, and make it far more difficult to build upon realignment with further lasting reforms.”

At recent press conference, Brown said SB 105 would enable the state to fully comply with the court-imposed cap regardless of how the court ruled on the extension. However, Brown noted that the deadline extension would allow the state to pursue a more sustainable and cost-effective overhaul of the criminal justice system.

“We can in the next few years find reforms and changes that will make our system more balanced, more cost-effective, and more humane. We need some time,” said Brown. “If the court doesn’t give us the time, then we will spend the hundreds of millions of dollars finding additional beds.”

SB 105 passed the Assembly on Sept. 11 by a 78 to 0 vote and the Senate by a 35 to 2 vote.

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One Comment on “California asks court for 3-year extension to comply with prison population cap

  1. Pingback: Spotlight: California Prison Capacity Expansion | What The Folly?!

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