California calls prison release plan unsafe
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration says it is a terrible idea that jeopardizes public safety, but if federal judges order it, California could in six months craft a plan to ease prison crowding by releasing inmates early.
The question itself is "outdated," state lawyers told a federal court panel in papers filed late Monday, "made before the state took enormous strides on its own to reduce crowding... The overcrowding level of California’s prisons that existed in the record before the Supreme Court is now a distant memory.”
Brown’s Corrections Department concedes it doesn't expect to reduce prison crowding to 137.5% of capacity by the June 2013 deadline upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state says it intends to eventually prove it can provide adequate care of higher populations, but a federal panel earlier this month rebuffed the notion and repeated previous orders that the state find ways to meet the target.
The governor’s lawyers Monday repeated claims that California’s only current option is to drop plans to stop housing 8,800 inmates at for-profit prisons out of state. Inmate advocates contend California could easily meet its goals and improve prison conditions by increasing the number of inmates released early for good behavior.
"This is the latest round of delay tactics,” said Don Specter, lead lawyer for the Prison Law Office, which brought the original class action suit over medical care. State officials have long known they don’t expect to meet the prison population cap, he said, “and now they’re saying, we won’t do anything else until the court orders it.”
With most low-level offenders now serving their sentences in county jails, California lawyers Monday said early release is no longer a safe option. “Realignment has increased the potential dangerousness of inmates who remain in prison, making it uncertain whether it is still possible to identify remaining inmates who are unlikely to re-offend or who might otherwise be candidates for early release,” agency lawyers argued.
California has shrunk its prison population to 119,000 inmates, down from 149,000 in 2009 when the federal panel set the cap. Double-bunking continues, and the degree of crowding varies. At Mule Creek Prison, the state last week told the court it housed more than 3,000 prisoners in space built for 1,700. The federal receiver appointed to run California's prison medical system last week filed an updated report to the court noting that the state had made “significant progress” in providing adequate care.
-- Paige St. John
Photo: Inmates at Lancaster in June 2010. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times