California has one of the largest prison populations in the country. The state’s prison system, designed to house approximately 80,000 inmates, has operated at extreme overpopulation levels for ore than a decade. At its peak, 173,000 inmates were housed in its 33 state facilities, more than 200 percent of capacity. This led to deplorable conditions, described as appalling and inhumane, with suicides averaging one per week and numerous deaths that would have been prevented if basic medical care had been administered.
As a result, class actions suits were filed on behalf of prisoners with serious physical conditions and mental disorders.
The cases made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2011, a 5-4 decision ordered the state of California to reduce overcrowding. The ruling cited that the extreme conditions made the system incapable of providing minimal care, resulting in “needless suffering and death.” The overcrowding was directly linked to the high rate of suicides, the increased spread of infectious diseases, and prison riots. As a result, SCOTUS upheld a lower court’s ruling requiring that the state reduce its prison population, 144,000 at the time, to no more than 110,000.
In an effort to comply, the state has been working on various solutions. In 2013, new laws were enacted allowing juveniles sentenced as adults to life without parole to petition for parole, as well as requiring the parole board to give special consideration to those having served at least 15 years of their sentence. It is estimated that about 1,000 current inmates would qualify for the program.
In October 2011, California passed AB 109 – the 2011 Public Safety Realignment. This act allowed for offenders newly convicted of certain nonviolent, nonsexual felonies to serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons. It also reclassified certain felonies requiring more than a year in prison, making those offenders eligible to serve their sentence in jail.
Thus far, the state has refused to allow for the transfer or early release of any state prisoner.
One of the more significant provisions of the law related to first-time offenders and parolees is prior to realignment, parolees were supervised by state parole agents, making parole violations punishable by up to one year in state prison. The new provision allows for nonviolent, nonsexual offending parolees to be supervised by the county probation department Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS). At this level, there are additional sanctions available for parole violations, including jail diversion programs, electronic monitoring and revocation terms of a maximum of 90 days in jail. Due to overcrowding at the county jail level, many are released prior to sentence completion.
First time nonviolent, nonsexual, non-serious offenders are also be eligible for a diversion program instead of jail to satisfy their sentencing requirements.
Due to this realignment, approximately 18,000 ex-offenders are currently out of prison. Most had been convicted of non-violent drug and property crimes and would have still been in prison prior to the new system. One of the fears of the realignment program (including any plans that allow for early release) is an increase in crime. Overall crime, including violent crimes, is down in the state and across the nation. A study released last month by the Public Policy Institute attributes a rise in property crimes, such as auto thefts and robbery, to the realignment. The study notes that from October 2011 – September 2012, the first year of the realignment, there was a notable correlation between the increase in motor vehicle thefts and burglary and the implementation of the prisoner realignment program.
There was no correlation between violent crime and the realignment.
The California Department of Corrections also released its first report on the realignment last month, noting that rates of re-offending and arrests post-realignment in the first year were virtually identical to the pre-realignment rates. The biggest change was in the number of parolees returning to prison or jail, which was significantly lower due to the new programs in place. Re-offenders represent a significant portion of the prison population.
The PPI study predicts that the increase in property crimes will stabilize as the realignment program continues.
Even after all of these efforts, the state still finds itself 4,400 inmates over the court-ordered cap. This is due in large part to the mandatory sentencing requirements of the three strikes laws.
Last week, the California Department of Corrections announced plans to build two new housing units at existing prisons. The new units will be located in San Diego and Ione will provide an additional 2,376 beds for prisoners with disabilities and immediate medical and mental health needs. Construction is expected to begin in the spring and be completed in two years.
In the meantime, Governor Brown wants to transfer the remaining inmates to one of several out-of-state private prisons. The state currently houses 8,300 prisoners in private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The state legislature has allotted $315 million for the transferring of the additional prisoners. This move was put on hold by a three-judge federal panel in September. That same panel instructed the state to come up with a plan that included specific solutions:
· Reduced sentences (and possible release of) those sentenced under Three Strikes.
· Expediting the process of resentencing juveniles originally sentenced as adults.
· Paroling the elderly and the medically infirm.
· Sending non-citizen prisoners to Immigration and Customs Enforcement before the end of their sentences.
· Any other means to reduce prison crowding, including relocation within the state.
In December, the panel extended the deadline for a third time until April 18, 2014, a delay of more than a year from the original deadline. It noted that no further extensions will be granted and that the state must be in compliance by that time. The panel has ordered the state to continue exploring its options.
Dorm at California Institute of Men in Chino, CA Plata v Coleman Trial Exhibit. Credit: Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP