Prison plan would avoid early release

Times Staff Writer

A proposed legal settlement in a high-profile federal court case on California prison overcrowding would vastly reduce the number of state inmates without releasing criminals early, by diverting low-risk offenders to community-based rehabilitation programs and county jails.

The draft agreement emerged after six months of negotiations among state officials, advocates for inmates, local law enforcement leaders and two mediators appointed by a panel of three federal judges. The judges are scheduled to meet in 10 days, and are expected to proceed to trial if a settlement has not been reached by then.

Many constituencies must sign off on the proposal, including Republican legislators and some local law enforcement officials, who have been wary of removing even low-level criminals from prison.


Instead of releasing prisoners early -- a controversial step that many state and local officials feared the judges would take -- the agreement would cut tens of thousands of inmates from the prison population by reducing the number who enter for short stays and those who churn through frequently on parole violations.

They would be given treatment and confined locally, including in home detention and by electronic monitoring. Ultimately, that would improve public safety and save high incarceration costs, participants in the negotiations said.

“It became apparent that we had a dangerous revolving door to the state prison system,” California Court of Appeal Justice Peter Siggins, a settlement consultant who was one of the mediators, told reporters Monday. “And what we were trying to do with the settlement was trade that revolving door for a magnifying glass and really put these folks under scrutiny.”

Those diverted from state prison would otherwise be serving a year or less. The median time served by nearly 45,000 inmates paroled for the first time in 2005 was less than a year, according to a report last year by the Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency.

Parolees, many of whom return on violations such as failing a drug test, would also avoid prison if judged as low-risk according to an assessment tool devised by corrections officials.

By removing that group, the state and its opponents would hope to pare the prison population, which now stands at 171,000. The precise target would be worked out later by the state and inmates’ lawyers. California’s 33 prisons were built for less than 100,000 inmates, although prison experts have said they can safely hold more.

The state would have until the end of 2011 to meet the population target.

Much of the proposal would require legal changes to be approved by state lawmakers. The agreement is subject to approval by the state, inmates’ lawyers, Republican state lawmakers and local sheriffs, police chiefs, probation chiefs and district attorneys, all parties to the case.

The settlement would achieve for the state one of its main goals: maintaining control of the prison system by avoiding a possible takeover by the federal courts.

Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the state is reviewing the proposal “as a potential comprehensive framework for resolving the prison overcrowding crisis and as an effective solution to protect public safety.”

Local law enforcement officials planned to meet today in Sacramento to discuss the deal. Under the proposal, they would be given additional state funding, in amounts to be determined, for probation and other services.

Participants in the negotiations appeared cautiously optimistic.

“We believe it is very close to the positions the parties can agree to,” said Elwood Lui, a former state judge who is the settlement referee.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who is a party to the court case but was not directly involved in negotiations, said Monday that he liked the deal’s apparent focus on coordination between state and local law enforcement, which he said has been lacking, and the idea of punishing, or treating, inmates based on their needs and track record.

“This is the first step of accountability,” Baca said. “There has to be earned promise and earned behavior. . . . That’s a very important element, because some people that go to prison, in spite of common belief, really want to change and get back on the right path.”

The proposal would provide new incentives for prisoners to embrace rehabilitation, by giving them more time off their sentences for earning degrees, completing substance abuse programs or meeting other benchmarks.

Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit agency representing inmates in the case, said he would have preferred that the state reduce overcrowding earlier than in the proposed settlement. But he also said that the focus on rehabilitation would be important.

“Instead of just sitting on their bunk for 60, 90, 120 days, they would be hard at work at a program,” Specter said. “If you put a lot of these offenders in a program, a certain amount of them won’t come back. They will be successful.”

Schwarzenegger, whose administration has opposed an early release of inmates in court, had proposed reducing the prison population through early release in his January budget, a move that some participants in the case saw as a conciliatory gesture to the three-judge panel.

The governor’s decision to remove the early release plan from his revised budget last week also coincided with movement in the settlement negotiations to avoid that drastic measure.

State officials say the governor’s early release proposal and his abandonment of it were related only to the state’s budgetary needs and not the overcrowding case.

Much will turn on how the Legislature reacts to the proposed settlement.

“We have some interesting and important reforms that we have an opportunity to get behind,” said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange). “But until I understand the feedback from the law enforcement community, which will be responsible for implementing those ideas, right now it’s just a document.”

For law enforcement officials, accepting the deal would avoid a worse prospect: that the three-judge panel might order a mass release of state inmates.

“Through this settlement agreement we have been able to at least accomplish that goal,” said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn.

U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt are overseeing the case, in which inmates’ lawyers contend that overcrowding is the primary cause of unconstitutional healthcare and mental healthcare in state prisons.

Under federal law, the judges would have to agree and find after a trial that reducing the population through a cap on the state prison population would be the only way to improve care, before they could order the release of prisoners.

A settlement would throw another wrinkle into the costly and complicated situation facing state prisons.

The state is embarking on a $7.9-billion plan originally intended to create 53,000 new prison and jail beds. But state officials have said they might not be able to build that many with the funding allocated, and lawmakers have questioned how many beds will be necessary if the population is reduced.

A receiver appointed by Henderson to return state prison healthcare to constitutional levels has asked the Legislature to authorize another $7 billion this year. If the settlement is approved, it could throw all of those plans into further question.




Next steps

* Mediators and parties meet Thursday for discussion.

* Parties accept or reject deal by May 28.

* Parties report back to three-judge panel May 30.

* Court and Legislature must approve settlement. If the settlement is rejected, the case moves to trial.

Source: Times reporting