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Editorial

Governor, stop stalling on the prisons

There are several fixes the state hasn't fully explored to relieve overcrowding.

August 14, 2012
  • Bunks were set up in the day room at the prison in Lancaster to accommodate the overflow of inmates. California is under court order to reduce its prison population.
Bunks were set up in the day room at the prison in Lancaster to accommodate… (Los Angeles Times )

California has tried shipping its prison inmates to out-of-state private correctional facilities. It has tried overhauling its parole system to send fewer nonviolent inmates back behind the barbed wire for violating minor parole conditions. And, most radically of all, it has completely realigned its corrections system to shift responsibility for housing and supervising nonviolent offenders to counties, cutting the state prison rolls by tens of thousands of inmates.

It still isn't enough.

As Times staff writer Paige St. John has reported, the state probably isn't going to meet a June 2013 deadline, imposed by a panel of three federal judges, to cut its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity (that means about 112,000 inmates at California's 33 prisons). Actually, it's unclear whether the state ever had any intention of meeting the deadline; the strategy of the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown has been to take extraordinary measures to cut the overall head count but not quite to the percentage desired by the judges, instead opting to plead for a higher population cap. The judges do not seem amused by this approach.

Having already ruled that overcrowding has resulted in a prison healthcare system so shoddy that it represents unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, and that the higher cap of 145% of design capacity being sought by the Brown administration won't go far enough, the judges are now ordering the state to report back Friday with a schedule for identifying inmates eligible for early release and a detailed plan on other ways of cutting the population. Does this mean pandemonium in the streets as dangerous criminals are let out early? Given how cautious the judges have been until now about issuing orders that would risk public safety, probably not. But it does present an opportunity for the Brown administration to stop stalling and come up with a serious plan for finishing the job.

As the state Legislative Analyst's Office noted in a February report on prison overcrowding, there are measures to cut the population that the state hasn't yet exhausted, such as changing rules on mandatory sentencing for certain crimes, increasing work furlough programs and bumping up the credits inmates can earn for good behavior; it's a better idea to make inmates earn their way out of prison than to simply set them free because of crowding. If that's not enough, the state could ask for more time to get into compliance, while specifying how it would use that time to reach the head-count goal. Although the judges don't seem very open to the idea of raising the population cap, they may be amenable to pushing back their deadline.

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