Federal Courts Order Oversight for California Prisons

Two federal judges Monday ordered the creation of an oversight panel to determine whether overcrowding is causing the pathetic lack of medical and mental health care to inmates.

If the panel determines they are, it would have authority to make drastic changes in the system, including ordering the early release of prisoners.

"This is an historic moment; we're hoping it means we will take a step back to constitutionally operated prisons," said inmate attorney Michael Bien, who petitioned the court for a federal takeover. "Our prisons are horrific places, they are an embarrassment to all of us. We think these very reasoned, deliberate and careful decisions by both judges represent a breath of hope that we can somehow get control of over the prisons again."

Gov. Schwarzenegger promised reform and didn't come through. He and the state legislature thought by pumping $7.4 billion into prison expansion, all would be fixed.

Now, a prison cap is possible. But it's not likely to result in mass early release of inmates.


Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office near San Quentin Prison in Marin County, .... took exception to the notion that an inmate cap would mean early release of prisoners. He said a national panel of experts assembled by the state to evaluate the prison system and make recommendations found that parole reform could make a big difference in the size of the population.

He said a large percentage of the new admissions to the system are for "technical" parole violations and fewer inmates would be returned to custody if the state did more to prepare inmates leaving prison for life on the outside and did a better job of overseeing parolees.

The "mass release" meme is a fear tactic. It's easier to instill fear than to deal with the mess they've created. All they have to do is operate prisons within the guarantees of the Constitution.

If California doesn't want to pay for inmates' care, it should stop locking up all but violent criminals.

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    go figure (none / 0) (#1)
    by Joe Bob on Tue Jul 24, 2007 at 12:12:00 AM EST
    And once they're out their access to medical care is...?

    If they can't find a job with benefits, at least they would have the option of delivering themselves to an emergency room if need be.

    California Prison mess (none / 0) (#2)
    by richmck on Tue Jul 24, 2007 at 11:25:14 PM EST
    Remember the "Cowardly Lion" in the Wizard of Oz? Well, he's back but he has a title: Governor!

    A Governor, who once pledged to "blow up the boxes" of state government, is too politically timid to even begin to deal with a routine prison bed shortfall of 16,600 beds. Other administrations easily dealt with correctional bed shortages; county sheriffs deal with it every day. Sheriffs release about 20,000 inmates a few days early each month. Governor Reagan dealt with overcrowding by reducing average length of stay by a few days (and closing a prison) without significant problems[1].

    Instead of simply dealing with prison overcrowding by bringing prison capacity into line with demand, our famous Governor caved in to public employee unions and opted to literally waste $6.5 billion for 40,000 unneeded prison beds. It will take years to bring the new beds on line and will result in a 32,000 prison bed surplus by 2012 according to the Legislative Analysist[2].

    How difficult would it be for our famous and timid Governor to actually deal with overcrowding on a rational basis? How about a couple 10 minute phone calls? He could call the chairman of the Board of Prison Terms and tell him or her to reduce average revocation terms for technical parole violations. Reducing terms by 30 days saves 5,900 prison beds and 60 days saves 11,700 beds. He could also phone the Director of Corrections (& Rehabilitation) and tell him to adjust the inmate work incentive program[3] to reduce average days served in prison by 8%, from 587 days to 543 days. The 16,600 prison bed shortage would be eliminated[4] and annual prison operating costs reduced by about $450 million.  It also avoids spending any of the $6.5 billion slated for more prison beds.

    It should be noted that overcrowding has nothing to do with inmates serving long terms for major crimes. There is plenty of room for all such offenders - none will ever be released due to overcrowding. The prison bed shortage exists only because thousands of less serious offenders (often referred to as wobblers) and parole violators, serving terms of less than a year, have been diverted to prison due to the long term, severe county jail bed shortage. Basic correctional policy dictates that short term offenders, absent other factors - usually security, serve their terms in county jail (at far less cost) not prison[5]. These short term offenders occupy about 30,000 to 40,000 prison beds, causing overcrowding[6].

    Problem solved and our timid Governor can focus on real issues like the State budget.

    Hey, Gov! Find the nerve!

    Rich McKone, Executive Officer, California Coalition on Corrections, www.rebuildcorrections.lincal.com; Parole Agent III, Retired, DC&R, Former Criminal Justice Planner, California Council on Criminal Justice & California Youth Authority


    [1] There is no relationship between LOS and offender behavior after release See Recidivism: The Effect of Incarceration and Length of Time Served, Song & Lieb, September 1993 for a listing of 12 studies on LOS and parole outcome at: http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/rptfiles/IncarcRecid.pdf.

    [2]  http://www.lao.ca.gov/analysis_2007/crim_justice/cj_05_anl07.aspx#Adult%20Corrections  

    [3] See Penal Code Section 2930-2935 for work/good time credits.

    [4] Inmates, on average, serve about 600 days in prison with each average day equaling about 360 beds.

    [5]  Historically, there has been a 50%/50% state local offender split.  Due to the county bed shortage, it is now about a 67%state/33%county split.

    [6] The approximate total of the jail bed shortage reported by the Sheriffs Association in Do the Crime, Do the Time? Maybe Not, in California (California State Sheriffs' Association, June 2006), at http://www.calsheriffs.org/Documents/do_the_crime,_do_the_time.pdf plus the 30,000 to 40,000 prison beds occupied by offenders serving less that a year in prison who would be county jail absent the jail bed shortage.