Sentencing reform key to prisoner reduction plan
May 23, 2011
California is most likely to dramatically shrink its inmate population by changing who goes to prison in the first place, not by mass release of convicted felons. [CaliforniaWatch]
The U.S. Supreme Court this morning narrowly upheld an appellate court ruling that ordered the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce its prisoner count to 137 percent capacity, or about 109,462 inmates, within two years.
The five year plan, filed with the federal court in November 2009, achieves its reductions mostly through sentencing reforms. The bulk of the population decrease is estimated to come within 18 months of implementation, according to California Watch.
California prisoner numbers are projected to decline by adding “no-prison” felonies that would result in prison terms of less than 366 days, alternatives to custody, a more generous credits system and far fewer parolees re-entering. Shorter sentences would allow people convicted of seven felony counts to serve time in county jails, rather than state prisons.
The crimes include:
• Possession of a controlled substance, including cocaine.
• Possession of a controlled substance, including methamphetamine.
• Check fraud.
• Miscellaneous grand theft.
• Receiving stolen property.
• Petty theft with a prior conviction of a certain offense.
• Theft with a prior felony of a certain offense.
The plan also continues the moving of some inmates to out-of-state facilities.
The law will ultimately shift inmates convicted of offenses deemed non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual (the “triple-nons” for short) to county jails. Keeping that population out of state prisons would save California’s general fund an estimated $458 million, according to the governor’s office, and significantly ease overcrowding at the state corrections facilities, California Watch said.
The majority opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy says, “Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient.
“Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short-term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.”
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia talks about releasing a menacing population.
“It is also worth noting the peculiarity that the vast majority of inmates most generously rewarded by the release order – the 46,000 whose incarceration will be ended – do not form part of any aggrieved class even under the Court’s expansive notion of constitutional violation,” the dissent says. “Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”