State Leaders Agree to Boost Prison Capacity — but Hope It Won’t Be Needed

California is fast approaching a December 31 deadline set by a three-judge federal court to reduce the state prison population to 137.5 percent of the system’s capacity, a level equal to about 112,000 inmates. Currently, state prisons house nearly 120,000 inmates — 147 percent of capacity and roughly 8,000 inmates above the court-imposed limit. While California has made great strides in reducing the number of prisoners — state prisons held well over 160,000 inmates just six years ago — additional measures will be needed to bring the state into compliance with the judges’ order, which dates to August 2009. (A CBP status report on the court order and subsequent developments can be found here.)

Governor Brown and legislative leaders spent the last couple of weeks debating what steps California should take to further reduce the prison population in accordance with the court order. Under a compromise announced this past Monday, the state will shift thousands of prisoners to private lockups in and outside of California this year — at a cost of $315 million — unless the court grants the state’s request for more time to meet the prison population cap. If California were to receive such a reprieve, the state would either drop or scale back the plan to contract for beds in private facilities, depending on how much relief the court decided to grant. This, in turn, would free up some or all of the state funds that would have gone toward boosting prison capacity. The first $75 million of freed-up funds would be placed in a new “Recidivism Reduction Fund” to be used for unspecified “activities designed to reduce the state’s prison population.” Half of any additional savings would go to the new recidivism fund, and the other half would go back to the state General Fund. In addition, the compromise increases funding for an existing state program that financially rewards counties for reducing the number of offenders who are sent to prison after failing on probation, either by committing a new crime or violating the terms of their local supervision. Finally, the compromise requires the Administration to issue a report, by April 1, 2014, that examines prison capacity, recidivism rates, and other issues, and recommends “balanced solutions that are cost effective and protect public safety.”

One of the primary goals of the compromise is to avoid the early release of prison inmates. The Governor and legislative leaders unanimously oppose releasing prisoners early, even though the court — based on expert testimony — concluded that reducing inmates’ sentences would not jeopardize public safety. Early release is a possibility because the court’s most recent order, issued on June 20, outlined a specific set of actions — including early release — that California must take to come down to the population cap by the December 31 deadline. For example, the June 20 order requires California to expand “good-time” credits that inmates may earn — a change that would allow thousands of inmates to leave prison earlier than expected. The order also includes a contingency measure requiring the early release of “low-risk” prisoners if the December 31 population target would not otherwise be met. Low-risk inmates are defined as those “who are unlikely to reoffend or who might otherwise be candidates for early release.” Presumably, the state would avoid the need to release any inmates early if it instead shifted prisoners to private lockups, the centerpiece of the compromise plan.

The linchpin of this compromise — for those who are wary of using limited state dollars to increase prison capacity — is the prospect that the court will extend the deadline for meeting the population cap. In theory, this would give the state additional time to implement as-yet-unspecified long-term solutions to prison overcrowding. However, it’s highly uncertain that the court would agree to such an extension. In their June 20 order, the judges not only voiced frustration that state officials had “consistently sought to delay the implementation” of the court’s population cap, but also argued the state had “no excuse for failing to meet the 137.5% requirement on December 31, 2013 … no matter what unexpected misfortunes arise.” If the court rejects the state’s request for more time, California would end up spending hundreds of millions of dollars to boost prison capacity, a solution that Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg previously called “neither sustainable nor fiscally responsible.” Such an outcome would run counter to Californians’ view that the corrections budget is already too large and needs to be downsized. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of Californians surveyed in 2011 supported cuts to “prisons and corrections” to help balance the state budget, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

While California’s path forward on prison overcrowding remains uncertain, it is heartening that state policymakers recognize the need to put in place durable solutions to the crisis. We hope that the debate leading up to the compromise signals the beginning of a robust conversation among Californians and their elected officials about the future of corrections policy in the Golden State.

— Scott Graves