"The prison crisis is over in California," Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed this week during a campaign to retake control of the correctional system from a panel of federal judges. It was a dramatic call, but unfortunately not the governor's to make. After decades of neglect during which Golden State prisons were packed to double their design capacity and the healthcare and mental health systems were judged so inadequate that they failed to pass muster under the U.S. Constitution, that judgment must now be made by federal courts, not state leaders.
Brown has good reasons for wanting to get the prison system out of federal control. The state is under an order to reduce its inmate population to 137.5% of the prisons' design capacity by the end of June. Despite herculean efforts to reduce the numbers, the state has little chance of meeting the deadline. A system that housed 161,000 inmates in 2007 now houses 119,000, but that's still 9,000 over the cap.
In its legal filings, the state makes a compelling case that it can't cut the additional 9,000 inmates without serious repercussions. For example, it could extend good-time credits to violent inmates who currently don't qualify for them — meaning, ultimately, that killers and other dangerous felons would be released earlier. Moreover, state officials claim that even if they adopt every proposed option, they still can't make enough reductions to meet the June deadline, so if it's not lifted, they will have no choice but to order the immediate release of inmates who haven't served their time and may represent a real risk to the public.