That’s how one expert has described the housing conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons — where inmates sleep in triple bunks, in beds crammed into gymnasiums, and two to a one-person-sized cell. “In more than 35 years of prison work experience, I have never seen anything like it,” he continued. The expert in question? Not someone unfamiliar with prison conditions, or stereotypically “soft on crime.” Rather, these observations come from the former head of corrections for the state of Texas. (Quotation from Coleman v. Schwarzenegger/Plata v. Schwarzenegger opinion order, p. 71.)
As many readers of this blog are surely more than familiar, this week a new state law went into effect to reduce California’s prison population by 6,500 inmates over the next year. Southern California Public Radio (KPCC) provides a balanced overview of the issues raised by the reforms, interviewing the LAPD union chief, who predicts the plan will undermine public safety by releasing dangerous offenders back into communities, as well as Stanford Professor Joan Petersilia, who argues that the plan will actually make Californians safer by better focusing resources on high-risk offenders. Meanwhile, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s floating a proposal to start sending inmates to Mexico, and a local sheriff pleads: “Local jails cannot bear burden of housing state prison inmates.” Of course, the California Corrections Crisis blog, run by professors and students at the UC Hastings law school, remains an indispensable resource for following these and other developments in the Golden State.
Since many of my readers are far more expert than I on these issues, I won’t belabor the details here, but after the jump, I’ll provide a bit of background for readers less familiar with California’s prison system.
California’s Prison Crisis: A Quick Overview
It’s hard to overstate just how overcrowded California’s state prisons have become. Since the mid-1970s, California’ prison population has increased 750% and the prisons are now packed to about 200% of their capacity. As a result — among other things — it is extremely difficult for prison officials to manage and provide basic health care services to inmates. A U.S. district judge found in 2005 that a California inmate dies needlessly every 6-7 days due to deficient medical care.
The conditions in California’s prisons have been the subject of class action litigation for years, much of it spearheaded by the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on California prisoners’ rights. Now, under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, federal courts can only order a state to release prisoners as a very, very, very last resort. But, after years in which California has made little progress in bringing its prisons up to constitutional standards, a panel of three federal judges finally ruled in August 2009 that there is simply no way for California to fix its broken system without reducing its prison population. (As one professor has noted, the scathing 184-page opinion is basically a textbook in 20th century penal history.)
The federal district court gave California two years to come up with a plan for cutting the number of inmates by about 40,000, or down to about 137% of design capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court has so far declined to intervene, so the federal court order remains in effect, and Gov. Schwarzenegger has been working out a proposed plan under the court’s supervision.
The Corrections Reduction Bill
Meanwhile, as part of last year’s budget package, the California Legislature passed, and Gov. Schwarzenegger signed, Senate Bill 18XXX, the Corrections Reduction Bill. This law aims to decrease the state’s prison population by 6,500 inmates over the next year, not only to alleviate overcrowding but also as a cost-cutting measure. The law doesn’t actually provide for the immediate release of any prisoners per se (an earlier version of the bill that would have immediately released 6,300 elderly and infirm prisoners didn’t pass), but implements a set of corrections policy reforms that should have the effect of reducing the prison population. Indeed, some prisoners have already been released from county jails as a result of the law’s changes to how good-time credits are calculated.
The key to understanding these reforms, and part of why California has an overcrowding crisis to begin with, is that California handles parole differently than virtually any other state. Currently, every single inmate, upon release from a California state prison, is placed on parole for up to three years. (Note: This is a way of saying they remain under the supervision of a parole officer — it doesn’t mean they’ve been “paroled” in the sense that they’ve been released early, since 95% of California inmates serve determinate sentences. Here’s a primer on how California parole works.) And that means they can be sent right back to prison if they violate any of the long list of standard parole conditions: if they commit a new crime, but also if they fail a drug test, or just forget to update their address. At any given time parole violations are the reason why 60,000 to 70,000 of California’s prisoners are behind bars (out of a total prison population of about 170,000).
As Stanford professor Joan Petersilia explains in the KPCC program linked above, under the new law California will only place about 85% of released prisoners on parole. (That’s still high: Most states keep about half of released prisoners on parole.) “This is what every other state has done over the last 20 years, and California has failed to [realign] our prisons so they actually do hold the most violent and risky,” Petersilia told KPCC. “I think we’re finally recognizing that we simply can’t send everybody to prison.”
- The law is expected to decrease the prison population by 6,500 over the next year, and save about $500 million.
- Low-risk offenders will no longer be supervised on parole after their release, so they’re less likely to be sent back to prison on a technical violation. (They’ll still be on something called “banked parole,” meaning they can be searched without a warrant at any time, and of course, like anyone else, they can still be prosecuted if they commit a new crime.)
- Parole agents will take advantage of their lower caseloads to focus more intensively on high-risk violent and sexual offenders.
- Prisoners will be able to shave time off their sentences by participating in rehab or education programs.