Dan Walters: What will Brown do with prisoners?

02/11/2014 3:09 PM

02/11/2014 3:10 PM

Gov. Jerry Brown has contended for months that the state could reduce severe overcrowding in the state’s prisons through creative management, without releasing felons that might endanger the public.

Federal judges who have been pressuring California gave Brown a big victory Monday by acknowledging the reductions to date and giving the state two more years to reach the population goal of 137.5 percent of design capacity. The state is about 5,500 inmates above that level now, but the sharp inmate drop of the past few years – 27,000 – would seem to make the goal a piece of cake.

There are, however, caveats in the three-judge panel’s order, and there’s continuing political angst over what the state is doing to reduce overcrowding.

The judges told Brown that he cannot ship more inmates to out-of-state prisons, and ordered immediate adoption of looser parole standards for ill, elderly and low-risk inmates.

Brown has maintained that he would not agree to wholesale inmate releases, but the state has already loosened up parole standards and would go further under the order. Therefore, some older felons who’ve spent decades behind bars for heinous crimes would, in fact, be freed on assumption that they pose no risk.

The centerpiece of inmate reduction has been “realignment” under which felons deemed to pose minimal risk are diverted into local supervision and rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing a historically high rate of recidivism.

The state has seen an uptick in crime rates lately, and critics of realignment say it’s because thousands of felons who otherwise would have been locked up are roaming the streets, and local sheriffs are freeing lesser miscreants in their jails to make room for serious felons being sent “home.”

State officials insist realignment is blameless in the crime spurt, and they are backed by pro-realignment groups such as the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which sees “no conclusive trends demonstrating a causal relationship between realignment and crime.”

But Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a harsh critic, said in a recent letter to the editor that “of the 19,000 offenders shifted to probation supervision in Los Angeles County, 24,742 arrests were made for new offenses,” and he’s backed by the anti-realignment Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which cites crimes as serious as murder being committed by “realigned felons.”

A new analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California declares, “Strong evidence suggests that changes in incarceration caused by realignment increased property crime somewhat, especially motor vehicle thefts, but finds no evidence that the most serious crimes, murder and rape, have increased as a result of realignment.”

As Brown tries to obey the courts, therefore, the political controversy shows no signs of abating.

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