Court order means early release for California inmates
By Joseph Perkins
California faces a Friday deadline to schedule the early release of hundreds, if not thousands, of state prison inmates. The deadline was imposed two weeks ago by a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined that the Golden State has made insufficient progress in reducing the nation’s worst prison overcrowding.
In May last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Ninth Circuit’s 2009 court order that California reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity, a level above which, the High Court agreed, constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”
California made initial progress toward meeting the lower court’s June 2013 deadline, with the state inmate population shrinking by 4,000 a month as of last October, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of state prison population reports.
However, monthly declines have since slowed to fewer than 1,000 a month as most low-level offenders — convicts sentenced for non-violent, non-sexual and “non-serious” crimes — have been turned out of state prisons.
That makes it difficult for California to identify a substantial number of inmates remaining in the state prison system who, as the Ninth Circuit panel put it two Fridays ago, are “unlikely to reoffend or who might otherwise be candidates for early release.”
That’s why state officials informed the lower court that California intends to petition for a higher ceiling on the state prison population of 145 percent of capacity, rather than 137.5 percent.
But even if the court approved the higher capacity — a doubtful proposition — it is unlikely California would even reach that more lenient target. That’s because the state is in the process of ending the practice, initiated in 2006 by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, of housing inmates in out-of-state private prisons to ease in-state overcrowding.
The Department of Corrections reports that there currently are some 9,300 California convicts serving their time in such states as Arizona, Oklahoma and Mississippi.
The state plans to bring all of them back to California by 2016, beginning with 2,000 inmates housed in an Oklahoma correctional facility that will be returned to this state’s overcrowded prison system by the end of 2013.
It remains to be see if California reconsiders its plan to end its contracts with out-of-state prisons in the wake of the deadline challenge it faces this Friday, and the considerably more daunting deadline that awaits a mere ten months from now, when the state’s prison population must be no more than 137.5 percent of capacity.
The nation’s worst prison overcrowding would not be so bad had the Democrat-controlled state government not bowed to pressure from the politically influential California Correctional Peace Officers Association (which represents prison guards employed at the 33 state prisons) to shutter California’s private prisons.
Indeed, over the past decade, the state government has cancelled contracts with Corrections Corporation of America, Cornell Corrections and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), resulting in the closure of seven private correctional facilities here in California.
Those private prisons would be most useful in helping the state to comply with the federal court order under the state’s prison system is currently operating.
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