Inmate transfers a good solution

An apparently imminent court-ordered dumping of hundreds of California state prisoners back into already overcrowded Bay Area county jails and parole offices is considerably less likely, thanks to a three-judge appeals decision on a different, but related, case. Sacramento’s 3rd District Appellate Court ruled Wednesday that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can legally transfer some 8,000 inmates to out-of-state private prisons in order to help ease out-of-control state prison crowding.

These transfers had been fought since 2006 by the California Correctional Peace Officers and the Service Employees International Union. The new appeals ruling reversed a lower-court decision favoring the unions’ argument that inmate outsourcing violated a constitutional prohibition against hiring private companies forjobs normally performed by state employees.

The Appellate Court stated that the governor is empowered to proclaim an emergency “when a condition of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property exists.” And state prison overcrowding imperils public safety in numerous ways. Jammed county jails are forced into early release of inmates who might commit more crimes; increased disease risk can spread beyond prison walls and inadequate prison sewage systems have overflowed locally.

California’s 100,000-capacity state prisons hold 170,000 inmates; with at least 15,000 doubled up in single cells or stacked on bunks in gyms and TV rooms. Control of inmate health care was already turned over to a federal administrator after judges ruled the prisons’ inferior medical treatment was unconstitutional.

Another federal court panel that is hearing 17 years of combined prisoner anti-overcrowding lawsuits gave all sides until early July to reach a settlement — or else a November trial date would be set. Judges then could order an immediate inmate release or a prison population cap, which is not what law enforcement wants.

The referee appointed by those overcrowding-case judges to try negotiating a pretrial settlement recommended that inmate population should be reduced by 38,000 in four years — by diverting parole violators and low-risk felons near the end of their sentences into community treatment or alternative punishment programs.

Because state courts are already pressuring San Francisco to reduce its jail overcrowding and The City’s probation officers must routinely handle four to 10 times more parolees than national standards recommend, any reprieve from a new felon overload is welcome news indeed. It is a shame that the politically powerful prison guards union fought so hard to block interstate transfers that must be part of any realistic overcrowding solution.

Everybody knows the private prisons have had abuses. But the other alternatives are either worse, fiscally impossible or politically unrealistic. Any ongoing transfer program should be accompanied by independent inspection oversight with teeth, to correct any malpractices at once.

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