08/08/2011 09:16 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2011

California Prison Overcrowding: Report Suggests Need For Legislator Involvement

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Ryan Gabrielson

The Legislative Analyst’s Office is calling on state lawmakers to get more involved in reducing the number of inmates in California’s overcrowded prisons.

In a report released Friday [PDF], the analyst's office recommended that the Legislature start by asking federal courts for more time to bring down the prisoner population. The U.S. Supreme Court in May upheld an earlier ruling that the state’s prisons are unconstitutionally overcrowded, compromising inmate health care.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has until roughly June 2013 to shed 34,000 inmates.

The state is behind in its population reduction effort, and the corrections department is requesting an extension -– all of which provides legislators with cause to take a more active role, the analyst's office argues.

“Moreover, as the high court itself noted, how the state achieves compliance with the inmate population targets involves some important policy choices about how to achieve compliance with federal court orders at the least risk to the safety of the public,” the report says.

The report, by analyst Mac Taylor, suggests two ways for lawmakers to exercise their authority:

  • Halt approval of new prison construction until the Legislature has reviewed plans to decide if the buildings will be needed after the prisoner reduction.
  • Continue transferring inmates to private, out-of-state prisons.

The second of those recommendations would require lawmakers to alter Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget plan for this fiscal year, which limits the state to 10,000 inmates held outside of California. By last count [PDF], the state already is paying to house 9,629 prisoners in Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Michigan.

The governor has indicated that he wants to shrink that number further.

In court filings, the corrections department has said lawmakers already have done plenty to ease prison overcrowding.

Most important has been its passing and funding of AB 109, the prison realignment legislation that takes effect Oct. 1. The law ultimately will shift inmates convicted of offenses deemed non-serious, nonviolent and non-sexual (the “triple-nons” for short) to county jails.

That alone will nearly meet the federal courts’ required inmate reduction, Jay Atkinson, acting deputy research director for the corrections department, wrote in a declaration last month. Atkinson continued:

Currently, CDCR houses in its 33 prisons, 13,371 non-lifers serving a revocation sentence or pending a revocation hearing and 18,597 inmates serving lower level offenses that are non-serious, nonviolent, and non-sex related. As an illustration of AB 109's impact, if CDCR subtracted these 31,968 inmates from its current in-state prison population of 144,237, the population would be reduced to 112,269.

Ryan Gabrielson is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.