Without a U.S. Supreme Court reprieve, California will have to free roughly a third of its prison inmates in a few years, and how that can be done safely is still hotly debated.
Corrections officials said Tuesday they are struggling with their response to a tentative federal court ruling this week that the state must remove as many as 57,000 inmates over the next two or three years.
The state's 33 adult prisons now hold about 158,000 inmates. But the judges said overcrowding is so severe it unconstitutionally compromises medical care of inmates, and releasing prisoners is the only solution.
"We are just now beginning to have discussions (about) who these types of inmates would be. Then, how do we get to that number?" said Matthew Cate, secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
No contingency plan
The department has no contingency plan, he said, other than appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court once the ruling becomes final.
The judges said their ruling does not amount to throwing open the cell doors.
"The state has a number of options, including reform of the earned credit and parole systems, that would serve to reduce the population ... without adversely affecting public safety," they judges wrote in the decision released Monday.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger already has asked lawmakers to take a number of steps to reduce the inmate population:
- Ending parole for former inmates not convicted of a violent or sex-related crime. That would lead to fewer parolees being sent back to prison because they violated rules.
- Raising the monetary limit for property crimes to be considered felonies. That would send more petty thieves to county jails instead of state prisons.
- Giving inmates more early release credits for completing educational or vocational programs.
Even if all Schwarzenegger's proposals were adopted, they still would fall short of the judges' target, said Cate, the corrections secretary.
'Game of Russian roulette'
Freeing or diverting inmates as the judges suggest is "a dangerous game of Russian roulette," said Stanislaus County Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers, who heads the statewide chief probation officers association.
He said counties lack the capacity to handle additional offenders.
Law enforcement groups also object that Schwarzenegger's proposal would rule out prison for those convicted of drug offenses, drunken driving, white collar or property crimes such as vehicle theft, grand theft or receiving stolen property, among others.
The state likely could not reach the judges' target without also freeing some serious repeat offenders and inmates serving life sentences, they said.
Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielson, a former chairman of the state parole board, said California should accelerate construction of new prison cells to ease the overcrowding rather than release inmates, although building plans have stalled for nearly two years.
The state already has transferred 6,600 inmates to private prisons in other states, and could try to boost the transfers as an alternative to freeing convicts early.