California is most likely to dramatically shrink its inmate population by changing who goes to prison in the first place, not by mass release of convicted felons.
The U.S. Supreme Court this morning narrowly upheld [PDF] an appellate court ruling that ordered the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce its prisoner count to 137 percent capacity within two years.
That equates to 109,462 inmates in California’s 33 state prisons (about 37,000 fewer than now incarcerated), according to the CDCR reduction plan.
The plan [PDF], filed with the federal court in November 2009, laid out a five-year effort that achieves its reductions mostly through sentencing reforms. The bulk of the population decrease is estimated to come within 18 months of implementation.
CDCR projected a 27,000 prisoner count decline just by adding “no-prison” felonies, alternatives to custody, a more generous credits system and far fewer parolees re-entering.
Of those, the biggest provision would designate seven felony offenses as bringing no more than 366 days incarcerated. That reform would mandate those convicted of the designated offenses (listed below) to serve their time in county jails, rather than state prisons, bringing the population down 11,815.
The crimes include:
- Possession of a controlled substance, including cocaine.
- Possession of a controlled substance, including methamphetamine.
- Check fraud.
- Miscellaneous grand theft.
- Receiving stolen property.
- Petty theft with a prior conviction of a certain offense.
- Theft with a prior felony of a certain offense.
Under the plan, California would also continue moving some inmates to out-of-state facilities. Currently more than 10,000 california prisoners are serving their sentences in private prisons in four states. That number could increase to 15,000 by 2014.
It is unknown how that plan would change to coordinate with Assembly Bill 109, the prison realignment legislation signed into law this year by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The law will ultimately shift inmates convicted of offenses deemed non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual (the “triple-nons” for short) to county jails. Keeping that population out of state prisons would save California’s general fund an estimated $458 million, according to the governor’s office, and significantly ease overcrowding at the state corrections facilities.
Medical care in the state prisons is deemed so poor as to be unconstitutional, the high court ruling affirms, with overcrowding the prime cause.
In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the judges hammer the point:
Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short-term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia references the notion of a menacing population about to benefit from mass release. Among the more descriptive passages:
It is also worth noting the peculiarity that the vast majority of inmates most generously rewarded by the release order – the 46,000 whose incarceration will be ended – do not form part of any aggrieved class even under the Court’s expansive notion of constitutional violation. Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.