California faces sanctions, fines and possible jail time for Governor Jerry Brown if the state continues to defy a federal court order to reduce its prison population. That harsh ruling from a three-judge panel came last week in response to the governor’s motion to vacate a prison population cap those judges imposed seven years ago – when they found that overcrowding was the main reason inmates suffered and died from a lack of healthcare. Now, they say overcrowding is still a problem. KPCC’s Julie Small looks at what options are left for Governor Brown and the state.
In 2006, a panel of federal judges ordered California to reduce the number of inmates in the prisons by 40,000. Then-Attorney General Jerry Brown fought the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But in 2011, the justices upheld the order to bring down the state’s prison population.
As Governor, Jerry Brown pushed through realignment – the law that hands responsibility for thousands of felons to the counties. That was supposed to bring down the population. But when it became clear last year that the state would fall short of the mark by 9,000 inmates, Governor Brown refused to do more - and he refused in a very public way.
"The governor put himself in the center of this dispute by holding a press conference in January in which he announced that this was going to be the state’s policy," says Don Specter, an attorney with the Prison Law Office. He says Brown has been thumbing his nose at the federal court for a year. Specter says the judges made the right call by threatening the governor with a contempt of court charge.
"They’ve given him one, last, final chance to act like a responsible adult and like a responsible politician and follow the orders of the court. And if he doesn’t, we will ask the court to throw the book at him," says Specter.
"We are appealing this to the U.S. Supreme Court," says Jeffrey Callison with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He says California has spent more than a billion dollars to improve prison healthcare. He says it’s the best care in any prison system in the country. Callison says Corrections officials are hoping the Supreme Court will set aside the order to cut loose inmates – and if it doesn’t?
"The remaining prison population is much more heavily comprised now of more serious offenders. So to further reduce would involve a variety of possible measures all of which would result in more serious offenders going into the community earlier than they would have done otherwise," says Callison.
Fontana’s Police Chief Rodney Jones says that keeps him up at night.
"The scariest thing for me as a police chief is the prison overcrowding because that’s 9,000 people that they missed the mark by - and between now and December, they’ve got to find new homes for them," says Jones.
Chief Jones says the jails in San Bernardino County are already full. For every felon they take in, someone else gets let out. Jones says since realignment took effect, the crime rate in Fontana has jumped by 13 percent.
"The state may have hit the wall on that score," says law professor Robert Weisberg with the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. He doubts California can expand realignment without increasing the risk. He sees a better way.
"California has some very, very long term, very, very elderly and sometimes frail life prisoners. The governor has expressed some interest in reexamining the criteria by which lifers get a chance for parole release," says Weisberg.
Weisberg says lifers did terrible things, but he says they have very low recidivism rates - especially lifers over 50.
But letting more of them get parole won’t shave 9,000 inmates from the system by December. Weisberg says the best bet for California would be work out deals to house state prisoners in county jails that have room. He says Corrections could also add to the pool of 8,000 inmates now serving terms in private prisons in other states.
The federal judges gave state officials 21 days to come up with a plan. They also want to see the state work up a system to identify inmates who pose little risk and could be candidates for early release.
As for the governor’s response? It came during his trade mission in China. He says he’ll refuse to follow the court’s order.