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California’s Prison Crisis Could Be Solved Easily

The fallout from the Supreme Court’s ruling on California prisons has been predictable. Law and order politicians rail against “activist judges” who are meddling in California’s business (by protecting 8th Amendment rights and rejecting the ability for the state to continue killing its prisoners through negligence to their medical care). They claim that this order will lead to violent prisoners being let out onto California’s streets – think of your children! This is actually a part of Antonin Scalia’s dissent:

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.

In reality, we know that the reduction in the prison population could easily be achieved without one release of a violent offender, simply through sentencing reforms.

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.

These are generally minor drug offenses or petty theft. That change alone gets you 1/3 of the way there, and reforms to the literally insane parole policy would probably equal that. 2/3 of all recidivism in California can be attributed to technical parole violations – things like missing a scheduled meeting.

The other part of the plan would be to shift non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders
to county jails, part of a much broader realignment strategy to shift resources and responsibilities away from Sacramento and back to municipalities. Governor Jerry Brown is actually using this ruling to argue for an extension of tax increases to facilitate that shift. The prisoner shifts are actually tied to increased revenue in a bill, AB 109, signed by the Governor earlier this year.

Finally, California could help fix this Constitutional problem simply by implementing their own laws. Under a new law, the state can grant medical parole to terminally ill inmates and remand them to a hospital, paid for through Medicaid at a far cheaper rate than through the prison. We’re talking about prisoners in comas, or paraplegics, people who cannot possibly escape or threaten the populace. Despite the medical parole law passing last September, the parole board heard its first medical parole case yesterday. This has the potential of both saving the state millions of dollars and freeing up medical staff at the prisons so they can carry out the Constitutional duty of prescribing adequate health care.

So there are plenty of possibilities in the short-term to fix the problem. California lawmakers simply don’t want to hear about their own failure to properly provide Constitutionally legitimate incarceration. This has been a long time coming and this slap in the face from the Supreme Court was completely warranted.

California built all these prisons and kept passing tougher and tougher sentencing laws, most of which were absurd or unnecessarily harsh. But California didn’t seem to realize you actually have to pay for the costs of operating all those prisons. And as prisoners age, their health care needs increase, and you have to pay for those things too.

But California legislators thought they could have it both ways – they could score points with a late 20th century electorate by filling the prisons, and score points with the same electorate by not paying to maintain those prisons or care for the prisoners. This was an untenable situation, and it has finally blown up in Sacramento’s face.

Legislators may complain about mass release of prisoners, but they have had plenty of time to avoid doing so, and at every turn have chosen to ignore the underlying problems. The Supreme Court has finally, and rightly, said that this situation is nonsense and cannot continue.

I also agree with Robert Cruickshank that, unless the state adopts meaningful sentencing reforms, they’ll be back here all over again. Even the prison guard’s union, resistant to this for decades, understands this now. The status quo is unsustainable.

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David Dayen

David Dayen