California’s latest plan to alleviate prison overcrowding and meet a federal court order – announced last week – relies heavily on the transfer of thousands of inmates to county facilities, as long as the state can come up with the funding.
But unless prison officials exceed that already-ambitious transfer target, California might need to keep thousands of inmates locked up in facilities outside the state for many years, according to state analysts. The question facing prison officials is how long the state will have the legal authority to hold inmates in those prisons.
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The Supreme Court last month upheld a lower court ruling requiring California to cut its prison population by about 32,000 inmates within two years.
Currently, more than 10,000 offenders are serving sentences in private prisons outside California, in four states. That number could grow to 15,000 by 2013.
The transfers were ordered in an October 2006 state of emergency proclamation [PDF] signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said the action was necessary “to prevent death and harm caused by California’s severe prison overcrowding.”
The proclamation allowed officials to override a law that prohibits sending inmates out of state without their consent. A year later, the Legislature also approved some out-of-state transfers as part of a prison construction bill. The Legislature’s authority for those transfers is set to expire next month.
A spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the state continues to rely on the 2006 proclamation to authorize the transfers.
“Our position is that the emergency proclamation is in place and we’re operating under that authority,” said department spokesman Paul Verke.
Verke declined to comment on how long the state prison system would maintain the state of emergency. A spokeswoman for Gov. Jerry Brown referred questions to the Department of Corrections.
In March, Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said some inmates could start returning to California if Brown’s realignment plan moves forward.
“If we’re able to reduce prison crowding at a significant level, we can begin to bring those 10,000 (inmates) back,” Cate told KQED’s "Forum" program.
Cate did not say whether he would support lifting the state of emergency.
The California Emergency Services Act states that the governor “shall proclaim the termination of a state of emergency at the earliest possible date that conditions warrant.”
Prison officials have said privately that they would move to lift the state of emergency if the state is successful in reducing the inmate population to levels set by the court.
“If we meet the court’s population threshold, then it’s difficult to maintain that we’re still in a state of emergency,” said one official, who asked that his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
The official said the state could seek new legislation to extend the authority to keep some inmates out of California if prisons here could not accommodate their return.