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Prisons reach court-ordered inmate levels a year ahead of schedule

Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom, in 2013,  when federal judges gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, a limit that has been met more than a year early, officials say.
Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom, in 2013, when federal judges gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, a limit that has been met more than a year early, officials say. The Associated Press

California’s prison system has hit a milestone, with new figures showing that the inmate population inside the state’s 34 adult prisons has fallen below a court-ordered cap more than a year ahead of schedule.

Following legal battles that went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, the state’s prison population has been decreasing steadily in recent years, and a report posted online Thursday by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation puts the latest inmate numbers at 113,463, below the cap of 137.5 percent of capacity set by a panel of federal judges in 2009. The prison system’s design capacity is 82,707 inmates, and the population as of midnight Thursday was 137.2 percent of capacity.

“This is a snapshot in time,” corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in a statement. “We’re clearly making progress, but much work remains.”

One of the lead inmate attorneys in the effort to force reductions in the prison population called the development a “significant moment.”

“We should all acknowledge it’s an important, significant and historic moment,” attorney Michael Bien said, but he added that the state must show that it can maintain the reductions over time.

How we got here

California’s prisons steadily filled in the 1990s as tough-on-crime measures such as the “three-strikes” law won public support. In November 2006, the prison population hit 162,804 – larger than Elk Grove’s current estimated population – or 200.2 percent of the design capacity at that time.

Lawyers for the inmates said overcrowding had reached the point that medical and mental health care services for prisoners were unconstitutional, and they renewed their legal challenge to a system in which inmates were being housed in triple-deck bunks in prison gyms and other open spaces. The state disagreed and continued to fight, but in August 2009 a panel of three federal judges said the situation had “brought California’s prisons to the breaking point.”

The panel decreed that within two years the state would reduce inmate populations to 137.5 percent of capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 decision in 2011 that the prison population had to be reduced, prompting a series of efforts under Gov. Jerry Brown that led to Thursday’s levels.

Under the latest court orders, California has until Feb. 28, 2016, to cut its inmate population to the 137.5 percent benchmark. The early success in getting to that point can be traced largely to the governor’s prison realignment plan, passed in 2011, which shifted responsibility for nonviolent, low-level offenders from the state to counties.

Before that plan, as many as 60,000 inmates annually were sent to prisons as parole violators and served an average of 90 days. The Department of Corrections says realignment has cut the prison population by about 25,000 inmates. Counties statewide have seen an increase in jail inmates during that time frame.

Where else have inmates gone?

▪ 2,035 inmates have been released since passage of Proposition 47 in November, which redesignated several felony-level crimes, including some drug possession and property offenses, as misdemeanors.

▪ 1,975 inmates in prison after a “third strike” have been released since voters approved Proposition 36 in 2012. The measure allows for inmates to seek resentencing if their third strike was not considered serious or violent.

▪ 115 inmates were released through an parole program designed to get elderly inmates not considered a threat to the public out of prisons.

▪ 2,077 inmates were transferred to a private prison in California City.

▪ Another 8,800 inmates are being housed in prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

▪ Also helping efforts is a continued decrease in violent crime, a trend that has been measured nationwide for years.

Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.

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