How to ease prison crowding has state stumped

sstanton@sacbee.comJune 8, 2011 

Inmates bunk in a converted gym at San Quentin. The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered California to cut its prison population by more than 20 percent.

RANDALL BENTON — Bee file, 2009

This is the state of California's prison system today: 143,435 inmates in state prisons, and a court order giving officials five months to trim that number to 133,016.

How that will be accomplished is still a mystery.

"We are out of time and we're out of room," Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said Tuesday in a stark assessment. "We've got to get this done."

The state has been under the gun for years to do something about the chronic overcrowding problems inside its 33 adult prisons. But last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming the sorry state of prison overcrowding has added new urgency to the situation.

Gov. Jerry Brown envisions solving the problem by shifting tens of thousands of low-level inmates to the supervision of county sheriffs, and he already has signed legislation to allow that.

But his plan for funding the "realignment" hinges on a proposed budget that includes extensions of state tax hikes imposed in 2009, and Brown has been unable to garner Republican support for that proposal.

Without a budget agreement or some magical fiscal fix that appears out of the blue, prison officials say they have two options in the coming months: Ask for an extension from the court or risk a court order requiring the release of more than 10,000 inmates in the fall.

"I think it's scary to everyone, and it would be an irresponsible approach," Cate said Tuesday as his department filed a report in federal court outlining how it is handling inmate population reductions.

Whether the situation truly is as dire as prison officials say is a matter of debate. Opponents of the tax extensions proposed by the governor say Tuesday's media conference was an exercise in politics.

"I think it's in their political interest right now to try to create an emergency," said George Runner, a state Board of Equalization member and former GOP state senator who led efforts against federal court involvement in the prison system. "That becomes the driving force for them."

Runner and others say there is no impending crisis because the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling virtually invited the state to request a postponement of the deadlines to cut prison populations.

That request would have to go to a panel of three federal judges who ordered the state in January 2010 to get its prison population down to 137.5 percent of capacity, or about 110,000 inmates, by May 2013.

Cate said he would ask for an extension if the state cannot met the November deadline, but the idea clearly is not appealing.

"It would be irresponsible to just say we're going to do nothing, to go back to the same three judges … and cross our fingers," he said.

The prison system is currently at 179 percent of capacity, but the report filed Tuesday says California has cut population by 19,000 inmates in the past five years and is "moving ahead aggressively to do more to reduce prison crowding."

To make the next court-imposed deadline – getting down to 167 percent of capacity by Nov. 28 – the corrections agency is banking heavily on a budget getting passed and funding the governor's plan to shift low-level inmates to the supervision of county sheriffs.

Prison officials say that would remove tens of thousands of parole violators from the state prison system. These people typically spend less than 90 days in prison and could be funneled to county jails without endangering public safety, advocates say.

The plan would pay counties for taking the additional inmates, and Cate said the state would not move forward unless there is a steady source of funding available.

But there isn't one yet.

Numerous law enforcement groups have endorsed the realignment plan, but the situation is still unsettling for some who say they need answers soon about how the budget impasse will affect them.

"I've been doing this for 43 years, and I've never been as disappointed in people as I am today," Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto said. "I don't know what these politicians are thinking in today's world.

"They're holding everybody hostage for their own personal needs and their own agendas."

Prieto said his jails typically are at 80 to 90 percent of capacity and that he still does not know how money will be parceled out to counties if the governor's plan is funded.

"I'm sort of preparing for who I'm going to cut loose when we start getting state prisoners," he said.

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