Report: Prison population reductions insufficient
SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to keep tens of thousands of low-level offenders in county jails instead of state prisons won't reduce the inmate population enough to fully comply with a federal court order, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said Friday.
A report released by the analyst's office said the state will likely fall several thousand inmates short of the 34,000-man reduction ordered by the court. The report urges officials to ask a judge for more time, look at other ways to reduce crowding and consider sending more prisoners to private prisons in other states.
"Asking for a court extension is probably the most important thing," said analyst Paul Golaszewski, the report's author.
A federal judge ruled five years ago that substandard health care in California prisons was leading to the deaths of about 50 inmates a year. A three-judge panel then appointed a health care receiver to oversee medical care and ordered the state to reduce its prison population.
The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in May that California must cut the number of prisoners from 143,500 to 110,000 by 2013. The state was given a series of benchmarks for that reduction, including an initial deadline of 10,500 fewer inmates by Dec. 27.
More time needed
Prison officials recently acknowledged that they do not expect to reach that required reduction until Jan. 27. The analyst's report recommends that the state ask for more time.
Not everyone thinks that is a good idea.
"The state has had plenty of time to know the potential for this ruling was ahead," said Emily Harris, the statewide coordinator of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, an alliance of groups working to reduce the number of people in prison. "They shouldn't be asking the court for additional time."
State officials believe the plan to move more offenders to county jails, known as realignment, will reduce the state prison inmate population by nearly 40,000 within four years.
The report outlines several other ways that state projections might not pan out. For example, district attorneys might seek more serious charges to keep some offenders out of county jails and in state prisons, the report says.
Still, realignment will "likely" shrink the state prison population by tens of thousands of inmates over the next two years and "will go a long way toward reducing overcrowding in the next several years," the report said.
"We're pleased that the ... report confirms we're on the right track with our court-ordered plan," said Lee Seale, director of internal oversight and research at the prisons department. "We're also pleased that the (legislative analyst) agrees that the governor's plan (to send more inmates to county jails) is going to produce better criminal justice outcomes."
Department officials were nevertheless unsure whether they would follow through with what is probably the report's most controversial recommendation: to send more inmates to private out-of-state prisons.
Private prisons are controversial in union-friendly California, where critics question their quality and object to turning the prison system into a business venture.
The state is on track to reduce the number of inmates housed in private prisons by about 4,000 over the next year. There are currently 10,000 private beds. Sending inmates to privately run facilities in other states would be difficult politically even if prison officials and the governor wanted to change course.
Kris Lev-Twombly, of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, said the "solution to overcrowding will never be sending prisoners involuntarily out of state or building new prisons."
Ryan Sherman, a spokesman for the union representing prison guards, said studies already show that private prisons are worse at reducing recidivism and cost more than state prisons. Extending those private contracts may violate state civil service laws, he said.
"These private prison contracts are already costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year," in addition to what's already spent in-state, he said. "They don't do a better job."
The report also takes aim at more than $7 billion of construction bond money approved four years ago. The legislative analyst advises officials to "re-evaluate the number, types and scope of prison construction projects it plans to deliver," because the planned projects will probably not increase prison capacity in the next two years.
Golaszewski said the state should not be building any more dormitory-style housing - meant for low-level offenders - as officials have proposed to do at two former youth facilities.
"Given that most low-level inmates will be shifted to counties under realignment ... we feel there's a greater need for celled housing," he said.
Seale said his department will work closely with the Legislature to "make sure we don't build anything that's not absolutely necessary."