California prison debate focuses on about 7,700 inmates

09/07/2013 12:00 AM

10/22/2014 1:51 PM

When the hammer came down in 2009 from three federal judges ordering California to cut its prison population, the numbers were staggering.

Release 40,591 inmates over the next two years to reduce overcrowding so chronic that the number of inmates was at nearly 200 percent of design capacity, the judges demanded.

Because inmates were housed in every nook and cranny of the 33 adult state prisons then operating in California, health care had sunk to an unconstitutional low, the judges found.

Today, depending on whose numbers you believe, California has edged very close to complying with the federal court mandate without a mass early release of prisoners.

But the state is still not quite there, and the judges still are not satisfied.

Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that as of Aug. 28 the state was within 7,737 inmates of meeting the court's Dec. 31 deadline to trim inmate populations to 137.5 percent of capacity.

The raw numbers are these: California now has 34 adult prisons that as of Aug. 28 held 119,901 inmates; the court requires that number to drop to 112,164 by year's end.

Inmate advocates say getting to the target is easily within reach, and that the goal could be accomplished without endangering the public.

"By the department's own risk assessment, 40 percent of the inmate population in the adult prisons is classified as low-risk," Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, the group representing inmates in the lawsuits, said last week. "Obviously, there is a gigantic pool to choose from.

"There are lots of lifers who have done double and triple their minimum time, are over 60 years old, and are easily eligible for parole. The statistical probability of old lifers doing something bad is very small.

"There are a lot of people who have been locked up a long time for simple burglary because it is designated a serious crime, even though it is a crime against property."

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, in an opinion piece published Tuesday in The Sacramento Bee, suggested the state is much closer to meeting the court's demands than the administration has acknowledged. He noted that the state's 2012 prison census data showed roughly 4,100 inmates "whose most serious offense was drug possession for personal use."

Gov. Jerry Brown and California corrections officials sharply disagree with the notion that the state still has a huge pool of offenders who could be safely released.

Brown has said for months that California has gone as far as it reasonably can and should to reduce inmate populations, and that the more than $1 billion spent improving mental and medical health care services in state prisons has improved the system dramatically.

Beard, in a letter released Wednesday rebutting Gascón's argument, says there simply are not enough inmates left in the prisons who can be safely released to meet the judges' order.

California "is facing a crisis," Beard wrote.

"There are only about 1,200 inmates with less than a year to serve who are doing time for a nonserious, nonviolent offense and who have no prior serious or violent conviction," he said. "That doesn't even get us close to the federal court's demand."

The more than 4,000 inmates listed as being incarcerated for drug possession in many cases have a more dangerous history, he said. They include inmates who "already had committed a serious or violent felony in their past, are a sex registrant, or have a current serious or violent offense that is stricken or stayed," Beard wrote.

The department's 2012 prison census data shows many inmates serving time for what might be considered relatively minor crimes: 3,134 for second-degree burglary, for instance, or 1,405 for petty theft with a prior conviction.

But corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said such numbers are fluid. Some of those inmates may not be in the final year of their sentence, Hoffman said, or they may be serving time in out-of-state prisons or fire camps, meaning they would not count toward the numbers needed to meet the court order.

In addition, she noted, classifying an inmate as "low-risk" doesn't guarantee they pose no threat if released.

"Low-risk isn't no risk, and low-risk means there is a risk to re-offend," Hoffman said.

She cited, as examples, two inmates classified as "low-risk" who are serving time for possession of methamphetamine. Each has serious prior offenses – one with five convictions for robbery, one for burglary and one for drugs; the other with convictions for arson, robbery and domestic violence.

Since the court's order to reduce prison overcrowding, California has made significant progress, mostly by diverting to county jails offenders whose crimes have been designated nonserious and nonviolent who in the past would have been sent to state prison.

That program has cut the inmate population by 25,000 since 2011, but the courts have consistently rejected the state's argument that it has done enough.

Brown has appealed the order for further reductions to the U.S. Supreme Court. Late last month, the governor also submitted a plan to lawmakers to increase spending on prison capacity to avoid releases.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, has proposed a competing plan to increase spending on mental health and drug treatment programs for criminal offenders with the aim of reducing the prison population by lowering recidivism rates.

There is no guarantee either proposal will win approval by the end of the legislative session on Friday. And with the court decree still intact, corrections officials are expected to file detailed plans by Sept. 16 on how they plan to meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

Inmate files are being scrutinized and evaluated to determine which offenders might be candidates for early release if the state's other efforts fail. But Hoffman said the process is more complex than simply determining whether an inmate is elderly and therefore could be set free.

"There are some people who are old who nobody wants on their streets," she said. "Charles Manson, for instance."

Call The Bee's Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.

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