Crowded prisons have to release more inmates 

California’s prisons remain desperately overcrowded despite years of litigation and intervention by federal judges.

Overcrowding seriously compromises the health of prison inmates, and inadequate health care has led to the gratuitous suffering of untold numbers of felons. If the state is going to comply with federal requirements to reduce the prison population, it may well have to consider releasing some inmates early.

In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that California’s degraded prison conditions led to “needless suffering and death.” The ruling upheld an order by three federal judges forcing state officials to significantly reduce the prison population. Corrections officials have until January to remove more than 30,000 inmates from California’s prisons, whittling the system down to 112,000 prisoners, or 137 percent of capacity.

At first, Gov. Jerry Brown and state officials seemed well on their way to achieving this goal. Thanks to a plan to shift low-level felons to county jails or probation programs, the state was able to reduce the prison population by as many as 4,000 inmates a month.

Unfortunately, this program has largely found all the low-level offenders it can transfer. Now the population is shrinking by just 1,000 inmates a month, and there are still 10,000 inmates too many in the system. Experts predict that the population will soon stop shrinking altogether, and that California will fail to meet its federal deadline.

State officials have acknowledged as much, and in June, they announced plans to ask the panel of judges to let them pack as many as 118,000 inmates into the prisons, boosting overpopulation to 145 percent of capacity. The point, corrections officials argued, was to improve the prisons’ health care conditions, and the present reduction in overcrowding, combined with the opening of a 1,700-bed prison hospital, should adequately solve the problem.

The three federal judges do not appear to agree. On Aug. 3, they ordered the state to begin identifying prisoners that are unlikely to re-offend and could potentially be released before their sentences are fully served.

No one relishes the prospect of releasing prisoners who are likely to re-offend. Although Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was ridiculously hyperbolic when he declared that the court’s ruling would free thousands of “fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym,” serious felons are in prison for a reason.

But conditions in the state’s prisons have at times verged on the horrific. The suicide rate in California prisons was 80 percent higher than the national average, and suicidal prisoners were kept in cages the size of telephone booths. A federal court declared that at one point, an inmate needlessly died every six or seven days. As Justice Anthony Kennedy put it when he wrote the decision forcing California to act, “a prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity.”

California’s corrections officials have done everything they can think of to avoid releasing inmates early. But they are still well short of the federally mandated goal. The time has come to find those prisoners who stand a good chance of living within the law, releasing them, and finally ending the shame of our prison overcrowding problem.

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