Within 30 days, a court settlement could force nearly 40,000 state prison inmates to be granted early diversions to already-packed local jails and probation departments. Since San Francisco convictions account for about 1 percent of the 170,000 inmates now overcrowding California’s 100,000-capacity state prisons, hundreds of low-level criminals could be dumped back into The City’s jurisdiction during the next four years.

The San Francisco criminal correction system is far too overextended to handle any extra influx. There are 2,146 prisoners in a county jail with legal capacity for 2,010 prisoners. Around 270 prisoners are in jail-alternative programs such as home detention or work release. The Sheriff’s Department is short on deputies and must use overtime funds to staff the main jail. The City’s probation officers deal with probationer-to-officer ratios four to 10 times larger than national standards.

So here is yet another ugly example of the California state government determinedly ignoring long-festering problems until the last possible moment, and then tossing these hot potatoes back to local government as unfunded mandates. Sacramento has been doing this with education and all sorts of deferred expenditures for decades. It makes state officials look better, as if they genuinely accomplished something productive. But really it just sweeps a mess under the rug and creates major difficulties for local budgets.

This current stand-off is the result of some 17 years of federal class-action lawsuits filed by inmate rights advocates in protest against California prison conditions, particularly overcrowding. A court-appointed referee who is trying to negotiate a settlement recommends that inmate population should be gradually reduced by 38,000, to stabilize at about 132,000 by the end of 2011.

Opposition attorneys for the state, counties and local law enforcement are close to accepting that as a basis for compromise. But there is no agreement on specifics for accomplishing that reduction. So a special three-judge panel Friday gave all sides another 30 days to reach a settlement. If no consensus is arrived at, a November trial date will be set.

The referee is proposing that inmate population be trimmed by diverting parole violators and low-risk convicts serving short sentences into community treatment or alternative punishment programs. If the case goes to trial, federal judges could order an immediate release of inmates or a cap of the prison population, actions that the Schwarzenegger administration and criminal justice officials desperately want to avoid.

California officials should never have let this go so far. If it is no longer fiscally feasible to build our way out of prison overcrowding, then the state’s criminal sentencing structure should be re-examined entirely, with an eye toward expanding any appropriate but less costly alternatives that have shown promise in reducing recidivism elsewhere.

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