California Corrections: How a State Picks Thousands of Inmate to Take Out of Prison

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Lucy Nicholson / REUTERS

Inmates are escorted by a guard through San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, Calif., on June 8, 2012.

Last week, a three-judge panel ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population by almost 10,000 inmates before the end of the year.

The order is the latest in a decades-long struggle over the state’s overcrowded prisons, which the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in 2011 for violating the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state, however, argues that the condition of its prisons has significantly improved since the first lawsuit was filed in 1990, especially its prison healthcare system. California is the only state to have triggered federal involvement over prison conditions.

A three-judge panel made up of two U.S. district judges and one from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is ordering the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5% overcapacity. California’s prisons now hold about 119,000 inmates and are 150% overcapacity, which means about 9,500 inmates will need to be released. But how?

Despite the dramatic ruling and the headlines that followed, California has already had plenty of practice adjusting its prison population.

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“Prisoners are released every single day,” says Don Specter of the Prison Law Office, which provides free legal advice to California inmates. “This is not a dramatic number of prisoners.”

Since the Supreme Court ruling, California’s prison population has fallen by about 25,000 inmates thanks to a process called realignment, according to Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Realignment sends offenders convicted of non-violent, non-serious or non-sexual felonies to jail. In the past, many of those offenders would have been sent to prison.

In May, the state sent a plan to the three-judge panel to ease prison crowding, which would release more than 600 prisoners who are low risk (often elderly or frail) or have earned “good time credits” for good behavior. The proposal would also transfer about 1,700 inmates to a new prison scheduled to open this month, send 1,250 to “conservation” or “fire camps” to fight fires, lease about 1,600 cells in county jails, divert low-risk offenders to community correctional facilities, lease private prisons and expand rehabilitative programs. Still, the plan is a couple thousand short of the 9,500 number the court is mandating.

On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown began circulating legislation to reduce the prison population, according to the Los Angeles Times, but a number of legislators, including the state Senate leader, are pushing the governor to keep fighting it. Last week, Gov. Brown requested an immediate stay of “this unprecedented order.”

Callison says the state will request a stay from the three-judge panel this week. If it’s denied, the governor will almost certainly appeal to the Supreme Court – while halfheartedly going along with the federal court order.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the state’s realignment process. Realignment does not transfer prisoners from state prisons to county jails. Instead, the process sends offenders to county jails who otherwise may have gone to state prisons. An earlier version also incorrectly described the state’s prison population decrease since the 2011 Supreme Court ruling. It fell by 25,000, not 35,000.