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No easy fix for California's prison crisis

Even if a court order to ease crowding can be met, sentencing laws could fill lockups again, analysts say.

May 25, 2011|By Jack Dolan and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • Drug counseling and education have been severely hampered by overcrowding that has spilled into gymnasiums, like the one at Mule Creek State Prison, above, and meeting rooms.
Drug counseling and education have been severely hampered by overcrowding… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

Reporting from Sacramento and Los Angeles -- California's effort to shift tens of thousands of inmates out of its chronically overcrowded prisons to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court order could be undone by the state's tough sentencing laws, persistent recidivism and recurring budget crises, analysts say.

More than 33,000 offenders must be moved out of the prisons under the high court's Monday decision, which upheld an earlier ruling that conditions in the teeming facilities cause preventable deaths and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

But without sweeping policy changes, the state will still send high numbers of offenders to prison under "three-strikes" sentencing laws, put about 70% of parolees back behind bars for violations within three years of their release and keep ambitious prison construction plans on hold for lack of money, according to experts and inmates' advocates.

"I think … eventually we will have the same problem," said Michael Bien, whose law firm launched a 1990 case addressing poor mental healthcare in California prisons that ultimately led to Monday's ruling.

More than 40,000 prisoners, about one in four, are serving extended sentences for second and third offenses that are punished more severely under the three-strikes law than the crimes would warrant as a first offense, according to state corrections records.

With many sentenced to at least 25 years, the state has created a long-term population problem, said Michael Romano, head of a Stanford Law School program focused on the three-strikes law.

"The most egregious part of the three-strikes law, and what is contributing to the prison overcrowding and financial strains, are the people serving life for minor crimes," Romano said.

Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to ease crowding would move inmates convicted of low-level and nonviolent crimes into the custody of county officials. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimated that as many as 32,500 such inmates could be transferred in time to meet the court's two-year deadline.

But Brown's plan requires the state to pay local officials hundreds of millions of dollars to help them cope with the influx, and the money would come from tax increases or extensions that are politically controversial.

So far, there's no guarantee the state will come up with the money or would continue to provide it indefinitely, although Brown wants a constitutional guarantee that Sacramento could not cut funding to the counties.

Even if Brown finds a way to implement his plan, experts say, the prisons could still become overcrowded. Some inmates are serving life sentences for stealing a $2 pair of socks or $20 work gloves, Romano said.

Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and veteran criminal law scholar, points to the high recidivism rate and past cuts in funding for prison rehabilitation and education programs as a formula for continued — even worse — crowding.

"We have to stop the insanity of sending nonviolent drug offenders and low-level theft offenders to prison for life," Levenson said. "Nobody is saying we should let murderers out.... We have to stop the revolving door of parolees being returned for minor violations."

Compounding the situation is Jessica's Law, the 2006 initiative barring sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools or parks, making it difficult for California's 92,000 released sex offenders to comply with that parole condition, especially in large cities.

In 2009, the most recent year for which the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has statistics, almost 85,000 parolees were sent back to prison, most of them for two- and three-month sentences. That forced the state to erect three-tier bunks in sports halls, where parole violators spend their terms in the company of hardened criminals and without access to the minimal educational and rehabilitative programs that the corrections system retains after years of budget cuts.

With the average number of parolees in California at 127,383 on any given day, the state's overcrowding problem is bound to reemerge unless substantial changes are made to sentencing laws, parole conditions and in-prison rehabilitation programs, Levenson said.

Drug counseling and education have been severely hampered by overcrowding that has spilled into gymnasiums and meeting rooms.

"There's no space and no money" for those programs, Bien said.

As state officials struggle to comply with the courts, the debate over who goes to prison is likely to spark heated exchanges in Sacramento, just as it did among members of the high court.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that California sends an unusually large percentage of paroled inmates back to prison on technicalities. Testimony in the lower courts suggested the prisons are breeding grounds for more crime.

In his dissent to Monday's 5-4 decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said sending more inmates to prison has led to lower crime rates in California and elsewhere. From 1992 to 2009, the violent crime rate dropped by 58% in California, he said. Nationwide, the violent crime rate fell by 43% during the same period.

Releasing inmates early — as some officials say may be necessary in California to meet the courts' demands — will lead to an increase in crime, Alito said.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

carol.williams@latimes.com

Times staff writer David G. Savage in Washington contributed to this report.

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