A Cap for CA Inmate Population?
Society does a lousy job of providing mental health care to those who need it most -- those whose mental health problems limit their employability, leaving them without access to the kinds of jobs that come with health insurance. Left untreated, the mentally ill often run afoul of the law. Those who go to prison seldom receive meaningful mental health care, so prisons become warehouses for the mentally ill.
Federal courts have ordered California's prisons to classify and treat mentally ill inmates, but the prisons are overcrowded and the state's efforts to comply with the orders have been insufficient, to put it mildly. Frustrated advocates for inmates have petitioned the courts to cap the prison population on the theory that solving overcrowding will make more resources available for mentally ill inmates.
The state argues that the plan amounts to a get-out-of-prison-free card for inmates who will be released to alleviate overcrowding. Lawyers for the inmates think the problem can be solved without releasing significant numbers of felons much more quickly than they would otherwise be released.
Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, called the population cap a "temporary emergency measure." He said the most likely reduction strategy would focus on cutting down the number of technical parole violators being reincarcerated. Increasing good behavior credits and shortening prison terms by a month on the least serious offenders scheduled for release are other potential means for the state to get under a cap, he said.
"Until such time that we roll up our sleeves and reform the parole and sentencing systems, this might return a modicum of safety to prisons and the people who have to work in them," said Krisberg, a court-appointed expert on correctional issues who has studied population caps.
The governor would prefer to build more prisons, a solution that just makes the warehouse bigger. The state legislature was unenthused about that proposal. Finding alternatives to incarceration would be a more cost-effective solution to overcrowding, and the money that would otherwise be spent on prison construction and the employment of guards could instead be used to deliver quality health care.
The governor's alternative proposal is to send inmates to private prisons in other states. Not only would that proposal limit the state's ability to monitor the delivery of health care services, removing mentally ill offenders from their families and support systems would be detrimental to the management of their mental illnesses.
The motions will probably be heard in December. If granted, a population cap might force California to engage in meaningful, and long overdue, prison reform.
State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, a longtime legislative prison oversight specialist, said the population cap "affords us an immediate and real opportunity to evaluate who belongs in the prison system and to jump-start parole reform."
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