California is under the gun to get its prison population down from today’s 143,000 inmates to 110,000 by May 2013 or face a panel of three judges who can order inmate releases on their own. “Yes it’s frightening to everyone,” Matthew Cate told a Sacramento press conference Tuesday about the potential of judge-ordered releases. “[Inmate reduction] is serious and it is something we have to take on,” said Cate, the head of the state’s prison system.
The problem for the state is finding money to execute a reform plan. The Governor needs the legislature to fund a realignment plan to push low-level offenders out of state prison and into county jails. The county sheriffs want money to pay for the new miscreants. And the voters need to approve tax increases Gov. Brown wants but the legislature can’t even agree to put it on the ballot.
On May 23 the U.S. Supreme Court said California’s prisons are so overcrowded it violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment in the 8th Amendment. The court upheld a three-judge panel’s order that the state cut the prison population to 137% of capacity (down from 202% in 2006) or the judges would open the prison doors themselves.
The plan put out by Cate and the Dept. of Corrections calls for transfer of inmates to county jails, transfer of more inmates to out-of-state prisons (there are already 9,000 out of state), parole reforms to eliminate supervision of low-risk inmates and more good-time credits to inmates to complete high school or drug treatment programs in prison.
In addition, the most dangerous inmates are still at 200% of capacity for high security beds and that can only be cured by building more prison beds, according to Cate.
What the current plan does not include is early release of inmates. “But it is absolutely critical that the Legislature understand the seriousness of the Supreme Court’s decision and support a variety of measures that will allow us to lower our inmate population in the safest possible way,” he said.
Cate admitted if the state can’t meet the deadline “we will certainly go back to the judges and ask for more time.”
Asked what will happen if voters reject more taxes, Cate said, “If voters reject it we will have to find another source of funding.
The cornerstone of the funding is AB109, a bill that would create lease revenue bond program, meaning prison beds would be built and more capacity for local sheriffs to provide more inmate beds.
But even Cate admitted the department can’t wait for voters. The Corrections Dept. has to start now if it hopes to meet the court deadline.