California Officials: We’ll Fix Prison Crowding, Won’t Free 33,000

SACRAMENTO (CNN) — California officials said they won’t arbitrarily free 33,000 inmates and they will submit plans to the federal courts in two weeks specifying ways to remedy prison overcrowding under a U.S. Supreme Court order earlier this week.

“The goal is not to release anybody early,” said spokeswoman Terry Thornton of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Nobody wants to do that.”

“Nobody wants to open the door and let everyone out,” she added.

The state’s plan to reduce prison overcrowding is still being prepared for a special federal three-judge panel, Thornton said. California’s 33 adult prisons now hold 143,435 inmates, she said.

Thornton said that state plan may or may not include ongoing state initiatives that are targeting the overcrowding issue, which the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision Monday fall “below the standard of decency.”

One such initiative is the so-called AB 109 law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed in April that will transfer low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.

But the “public safety realignment” plan doesn’t have state funding yet, which could be stymied by how the state treasury deals with a staggering $25 billion budget deficit.

“We particularly need the support and cooperation of the legislature with the immediate funding and implementation of AB 109,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate said in a statement. “The governor has repeatedly called for full and constitutionally protected funding of this bill to allow certain offenders to serve their incarceration and parole term under local supervision.”

In ongoing state remedies that may be submitted to the federal courts for approval, the state has already transferred 10,088 inmates to contracted out-of-state facilities to reduce sleeping in gymnasiums, dayrooms and other places not intended for housing, according to the corrections department.

In May 2007, the state authorized construction of the California Health Facility in Stockton, which will provide medical and mental health treatment with more than 1,722 beds for inmates, the corrections department said. More than 18,000 beds are planned to provide health care to thousands of other inmates, the agency said. These measures may also be sent to the federal court panel, Thornton said.

On Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed a federal order telling California to reduce its overflowing prison population. The case was a classic battle over state versus federal authority, focusing on whether U.S. courts can step in and essentially run state prisons when officials have repeatedly violated basic constitutional guarantees afforded inmates.

The issue came down to a sharply divided debate between public safety concerns and individual rights, a debate that goes into how the three branches of government should balance competing state interests.

The swing vote was Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote of the “continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations,” including as many as 156,000 people crammed into correctional facilities designed to hold about half that many.

He said that “needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient.”

In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito warned that any mass release of inmates to alleviate overcrowding would be “gambling with the safety of the people of California.”

The state now has a two-year window to comply, with the clock starting Monday. Officials have not fully explained how their ongoing inmate reduction plan will need to be modified to meet the federal order.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, California Gov. Jerry Brown said he would take “all steps necessary to protect public safety” in resolving the prison overcrowding crisis.

Prison overcrowding is a nationwide problem, but California’s dilemma is unique in its massive scope and time frame. There is general agreement that the prison conditions across California are disturbing.

Prisoners are stacked three deep in 6-by-9-foot cells designed to hold only one. Open spaces meant to be gymnasiums and clinics have been transformed into crowded encampments with bunks and unsanitary conditions. Suicides occur once every eight days, on average.

California has the nation’s largest prison system, and the state says it has reduced the prison population to meet overcrowding concerns. But a special federal court panel had ordered 36,000 to 46,000 more inmates released or transferred quickly, about a quarter of the total.

That figure has now been reduced to 33,000, achieved through ongoing state remedies to overcrowding, according to Thornton, the state prisons spokeswoman.

Despite some recent drops, the prison population in the state has increased by about 75% in the past two decades.

Two lawsuits — one filed in 1990, the other in 2001 — say overcrowding is the core cause of what has become a domino effect of unsafe and unhealthy conditions for those on both sides of the iron bars.

State legislators and corrections officials have admitted that the prisons violate the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” contained in the Constitution, and have organized more than 20 panels and commissions to address the crisis.

The special federal court in 2009 had ordered the state to shrink the prison population from the current 200% over capacity to a maximum of 137.5%, and to accomplish that in two years. The state was given wide latitude to meet the goal, but the court was adamant the state do it without delay and without excuse.

The task was made more difficult by the state budget crisis and a national economic downturn that have created turmoil over funding solutions not just in prisons, but also in education, transportation and social programs.

(© 2011 Cable News Network and CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

  • Jeff

    That’s good to hear. They can reduce the prison population by not letting people out early. The way they do it is to not give “parole violations” for rediculous things like missing a meeting or appointment. There is a huge amount of parole violators that are filling up the prison beds, when they never even committed a crime. The majority of parolees are trying to find work and get their lives back in order. Don’t focus on the few idiots that make the headlines.

  • Christian F Gutierrez

    Please do. Some are probably not proven guilty or some are there for something very small. There are more criminals out there!

  • Jeff

    Not practical, but it sounds good on paper. I like putting people to work and letting them reduce tax payers money, rather than spend it.

  • Reality Check

    Why do we have overcrowded prisons? The answer is because we have ridiculously paranoid citizens from the Religious Right who want to throw everyone in jail for this, that and the other thing.

    Get a grip people!!!! It is because of these kinds of people as to why we have the highest number of people in prison BOTH in aggregate and per capita of any nation in the entire world. Stop and think about that… China has ONE BILLION MORE people than we have and yet we have more people in jail. Absolutely mind-boggling.

    We claim to be the country with the most freedoms on Earth and love to spew out the propaganda that we are the “Land of the free and home of the brave.” Sounds more like we have now become the “Land of the incarcerated and home of the paranoid.”

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  • R. Choice

    We are a lockem up society. Our so-called justice system is not geared for justice, but for maximum convictions regardless of degree of guilt,if any, by pressuring the inmate to take a deal /plea bargain rather than go to jury trial and risk getting triple or quadruple the sentence.
    So why risk a jury trial when the middle and upper class sit in a jury box and are persuaded by a great storyteller of a D.A. that the inmate is guilty of commiting a crime. In other words embellishing which equares to lying IN A COURT ROOM. Is that justice?
    Why do D.A’s do this? Because cities and counties receive needed federal monies that pay the D.A’s and their staff. it is all about the $$$$$. California is lacking $$$$, but not the county D.A.’s. They, not all, are educated manipulators to manipulate the American people and our justice system.
    If you think that i am full of baloney, then look in a phone book and see how many “former” D.A.’s have gone into private practice as DEFENSE attorneys. Go figure! Deduce from that.

    • The Cold Hard Truth

      Deduce from that? You are trying to make a deduction that cannot be made given your example. Most attorneys leave the DA’s Office and go into private practice in the belief they can make more and better money on their own. Attorneys are mostly all arrogant schmucks and since they are so ego driven they believe they can always do better because they are better than everyone else. Your argument that people are in prison simply because the DA talked a jury into it is such utter nonsense! How many trials have you seen? I have seen a good many of them and which our system is catastrophically flawed it is not for that reason. If anything it is because the DAs do not try more crimes. By the time someone goes to prison the first time it is because they have usually been convicted of at least 5 felonies!!! People rarely go to prison for their first felony conviction. Then when they get arrested for other crimes the DA just goes for the probation violation. They do a little time in jail and are released back on probation, perhaps with longer probation.

      If we actually got serious with our punishments so that people were legitimately afraid to commit crimes then we would be making progress. That will not happen so make sure you hug a thug today!

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  • kymberly turnquist

    Oh that is not the cold hard truth. wow, you asked the previous commented on how many trials they have seen..well how many have you seen ? It is ridiculous to think that sending more people to prison is the answer, I am a recovering addict and know from experience that jail only deepens your connection to a world outside of society and further isolates you from any influence to change. I went to rehab and that is what changed my life and after a year of being sober and in school doing good, I was arrested for a violation that I didn’t even know i had for something I had done over a year ago, and they gave me 200 days. Why would you put someone in jail when they had changed their life? even more ridiculously my probation ended 5 days after i got out. wow.

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