Capitol Alert

Federal judge says California early-release program can’t exclude male inmates

A Sacramento federal judge ruled Wednesday that an early-release program for female inmates in California’s prisons is unconstitutional and must be expanded to include male inmates.

“When the state draws a line between two classes of persons, and denies one of those classes a right as fundamental as physical freedom, that action survives equal protection review only if the state has a sufficient justification for the classification. Here, the state does not,” U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. declared in a 35-page order.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation “shall immediately cease denying admission to the (Alternative Custody Program) on the basis that an applicant is male,” the judge ordered.

Corrections spokeswoman Dana Simas said the department is reviewing the ruling. “We are evaluating the fiscal and custodial impact of including men in the Alternative Custody Program.”

Since the program launched in 2011, 530 inmates have participated, she said.

The Alternative Custody Program is offered to nonviolent female offenders who have 24 months or less left to serve in state prison. The idea is to reunite women with their dependent children or other family members. The inmate is allowed to serve out her sentence in a residential home, transitional care facility, or residential drug treatment program.

Challenging the program was William A. Sassman II, a Sacramento insurance agent sentenced in 2011 to 18 years in prison for grand theft for running a Ponzi scheme. According to court papers, he is housed in the Valley View Conservation Camp in Elk Creek. His attorney, Gay Crosthwait Grunfeld, said she was satisfied with Wednesday’s ruling, but disappointed that the state spent a year defending its policy in court.

“A law that specifically discriminates, as this one did, is so gross and obviously invalid that allowing it to stand is impossible,” Grunfeld said in a telephone interview. “It creates and perpetuates stereotypes that hurt both men and women. It sends a message that women should be home with children and taking care of parents. It portrays men as being incapable of fulfilling those obligations. Any person who meets the criteria should be able to go home and take care of his or her family.

“I hope they get to work on reform and welcome men into the program,” she said “It will save money, help with overcrowding and benefit men’s families.”

In defending its position against the lawsuit challenging the program, the state relied heavily on the expert opinion of Dr. Nena Messina, a criminal justice researcher at UCLA.

“Reuniting with children has been shown to reduce the risk of recidivism for women, but not for men,” according to a report authored by Messina as well as her deposition testimony given in connection with the suit. She testified that there is a “very low likelihood that men will be primary caregivers of children and reunify with their children when they leave prison.”

England said he did not rely on Messina’s opinion but, instead, was guided by the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189