California Given Until April To Reduce Prison Overcrowding

On Wednesday, federal judges overseeing court-ordered prison overcrowding reductions gave California until April 18th to meet a Supreme Court order to limit the state prison population to no more than 137.5% design capacity, or, about 110,000 prisoners. Overcrowding in California prisons was declared unconstitutional in the 2011 Supreme Court ruling on the matter, which found that overcrowding contributed to inadequate health services delivery.

California has engaged in various strategies to reduce the prison population. One is the practice of shipping lower security inmates to out-of-state contract facilities in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Mississippi. California began this practice when then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared the prison system in a state of emergency. While it is difficult enough for low income families to maintain contact with incarcerated relatives, a factor known to correlate to lower recidivism, California has become increasingly reliant on this practice, while also resisting building private prisons in the state itself. Currently, California houses 8,859 inmates in out-of-state facilities. While per-inmate costs are lower at these facilities, the supposedly temporary measure of housing inmates out-of-state has seemingly become the new norm. This has allowed California to slowly expand its in-state prison population and delays consideration of more practical and cost-effective reforms such as investing in recidivism reduction and sentencing reform.

On the issue of sentencing reform, the only notable sentencing reform in recent years came by way of a ballot initiative, not Sacramento. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 36, which allowed thousands of Third Strikers whose third strike was for a non-violent, non-serious, non-gun related offense to petition for resentencing. Thus far, 1,092 of 3,000 have been resentenced and released due the measure. Contrary to the sensationalist concerns of tough-on-crime elements, these former lifers were recently found to recidivate at far lower rates than the state and national average.

As of December 11, there are 125,185 people in California’s prisons. As of June 30th, 11,656 of them were incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. With average per-inmate spending of about $50,000 per year, that adds up to California taxpayers paying over half a billion dollars per year to incarcerate drug offenders. The benefit to society from locking up those 11,656 individuals in state prisons, and at such a high cost, is dubious. California legislators should be credited for at least attempting to limit the number of new non-violent drug offenders for admission to state prisons with SB 649, which would have granted prosecutors greater discretion in charging drug offenders with misdemeanors instead of felonies. Governor Jerry Brown ultimately vetoed the measure. Considering that California couldn’t pull something as modest as that, it is unlikely that California would consider releasing the 10,000 non-violent drug offenders, which, incidentally, would be a low risk way to significantly reduce prison overcrowding.

The most substantive reform California has undertaken to reduce the state prison population was AB 109, known as realignment. Key reforms under realignment include an end to automatically sending parolees back to state prisons for parole violations. Now, parolees found in violation of the terms of their parole may instead serve time in local jails. Additionally, non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders typically qualify for county jail terms instead of being housed in state prisons. As a result, greater pressure is put on county governments to deal with more offenders than ever before. Given this, AB 109 also authorizes funds for counties to spend on recidivism and expanded law enforcement. A recent Stanford University study broke down the political and demographic characteristics that influence how counties in California have allocated funds, with expanded jails and police officers apparently being a more popular option than investing in recidivism.

California has repeatedly sought extensions on meeting court orders and has attempted to end federal oversight of the prison system. While it has been granted extensions, it has failed to convince courts of its ability to competently operate correctional mental and medical health systems in the correctional system. High rates of suicides and poor evaluations of prison health services have led to prolonged court monitoring and receivership.

As one of the conditions for the April 18th extension, the panel of federal judges monitoring the California prison system requested long-overdue reductions in the widespread practice of housing mentally ill inmates in long-term solitary confinement. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton particularly noted 230 mentally ill inmates housed in isolation units despite not having committed rules violations.

Whether or not California will be able to accomplish anything substantive in corrections reform by April is up in the air. However, with a track record of failing to meet constitutional obligations, previous court orders, and instead choosing to ramp up corrections costs and stalling on reform, it is difficult to imagine anything substantive coming from Sacramento on the issue of corrections.