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The state of California's prisons

Editorial

Gov. Brown, seeking to end federal control, says the crisis is over. But that's not his call to make.

January 11, 2013
  • Gov. Jerry Brown gestures to a stack of reports on California prisons during a press conference. The state is under an order to reduce its inmate population to 137.5% of the prisons' design capacity by the end of June.
Gov. Jerry Brown gestures to a stack of reports on California prisons during… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

"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.

Ending federal control of the prisons could also save the state hundreds of millions of dollars by allowing it to cancel contracts with out-of-state prisons used to alleviate overcrowding. "We're wasting a lot of money on nonsense," Brown said.

We're sympathetic, and we agree that California has come a long way, but it's not entirely clear that the state has exhausted every available safe option; the ACLU, for instance, says more could be done to reform sentences for low-level, nonviolent crimes such as drug possession. And although any further population reductions must be handled carefully — too carefully to be done by June — we think Brown would do better to request more time than to demand an immediate end to an inmate cap that has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. During that time, the state could argue its case for an end to federal control while also seeking new ways to reduce the inmate population.

The most critical question remains unanswered: whether California has improved its prison healthcare system sufficiently to meet constitutional standards. Unfortunately, the special master appointed to monitor the system hasn't weighed in on that, prompting Brown to appoint his own panel of experts to decide. That panel said California's prison healthcare system was now a national model.

But that's not the state's call either. The only ones who can determine that are the judges who found the state out of compliance. We urge them to reconsider the issue.

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