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Still too many prisoners in California

It may come as a disappointment to Gov. Jerry Brown — but it certainly should not come as a surprise — that a panel of federal judges rejected his request that they return control of California’s still-overcrowded prison system to the state. The network of 33 state prisons continues to hold more than 9,000 inmates beyond the court’s mandated cap, and Brown’s administration has not presented a realistic plan to eliminate that excess, even though the court has extended the deadline for compliance from June 30 to the end of the year.

Brown is vowing to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and more power to him. He argues that medical and mental health care provided in California’s prisons, recently so abysmal as to be deemed cruel and unusual punishment, is now the nation’s best, and perhaps he is right. But even so, the courts can be expected to retain jurisdiction until the target inmate population is reached, and until the justices are assured that new standards of care in the prisons are a permanent part of the institutional culture and not merely a short break after decades of unconscionable inmate treatment.

It’s important to remember the level to which California’s prisons had sunk, and at which they remained just a few years ago. In the 2011 Brown vs. Plata opinion, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy detailed the harrowing conditions, including holding suicidal inmates for hours in cages without toilets, forcing them to stand in pools of their own urine. Why? Waits for needed mental health care lasted as long as a year, and in the meantime there was no place else to put at-risk prisoners. Suicide rates were 80% higher than in prisons in other states. Sick inmates died of readily treatable illnesses. Contracting a disease meant in some cases being rounded up into a cell of 50 other sick inmates.

Prisons should not coddle prisoners or provide them with gold-plated treatment, but neither should they treat inmates so poorly that they are essentially being physically tortured or left to die because of neglect.

At the core of these conditions was a prison population too large — in fact, two times too large — for the physical facilities and for the health and supervisory staffs assigned. The cap on inmates ordered by federal judges — 110,000 in facilities designed to hold 80,000 — was not some random and unimportant figure but was designed to ensure that California no longer provided the kind of treatment that is more often seen in Third World dictatorships than in civilized democracies.

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So although it may be the case, as Brown asserts, that California prisons are now a model for prisoner care, having reduced the inmate population by about 40,000 and having boosted spending on medical and mental health care, it’s too late to argue that the job is finished without the state actually coming close to the inmate population target. It’s not unreasonable for the courts to insist on it, or to remain unmoved by the progress without a good-faith demonstration that the administration can and will sustain it over the long term — by bringing the number of inmates closer in line with the capacity of the system to hold them.

While the governor is preparing his court papers, then, he and the Legislature should make a much more serious effort than they have so far to reach the numerical target. It need not mean releasing thousands of violent criminals onto the streets, nor would it require anyone to come up with ingenious new solutions; the ideas have been discussed for years and have been put in place by other states, which have reduced prison populations without increasing crime rates. The common theme of such ideas is rationalizing spending priorities and sentencing laws.

Mental health costs are so high because about a third of the state’s prisoners are mentally ill. That doesn’t mean they are innocent, but it does suggest that, in the long term, earlier treatment for at least some mentally ill Californians could prevent not just more serious illness but more serious crime as well. In the short term, if the risk level of mentally ill felons who are currently locked up were adequately assessed, some number of them probably could and should be released to community supervision.

Likewise with drug offenders. Treatment of addicts who commit crimes should include punishment, but punishment too seldom includes treatment. Drug offenders are often housed for periods far out of proportion to their crimes, and they come out no less likely to offend again.

Releasing lower-risk drug offenders and mentally ill inmates, as well as long-term inmates who are now so elderly that they pose little threat to public safety, may not be enough to reach the 9,000-plus target, but it would bring the state closer and demonstrate some good faith to the court, which might then be prone to grant a little more breathing room.

The governor deserves some sympathy for his political plight. On one side he’s got the courts, which want more inmates out of the system. On the other side are Republican lawmakers and local officials from both parties who complain that the 2011 realignment law already results in too many felons who violate parole terms being turned away from county jails, which are also crowded, instead of being returned to the state prisons. Some of them falsely assert that realignment released felons from prison early; imagine how they would react if Brown really did order the early release of more than 9,000 felons.

But Brown could also do a better job of holding sheriffs, county governments and Superior Courts accountable for their decisions about which people must be locked up and which inmates, including many of those awaiting trial, can be released. Counties may need a little push to move in the right direction.

The choice need not be between obeying the U.S. Constitution and letting violent felons go free. Other states manage the problem. California can too.


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