CDC Over-Population Articles



Close Down Guantanamo?  What About Our Won Hellholes?   

by Sherwood Ross
From Florida to California, America’s dehumanizing prisons confront President Obama and our governors with a challenge every bit as daunting as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. 

In California, the state’s 33 adult prisons teem with nearly double the inmates they were designed to hold,” The New York Times reports. In Florida, officials say they must build 19 more prisons over the next five years.

In both states, advocacy groups would rather see non-violent prisoners nearing the end of their sentences released early than build more new bunks. Barney Bishop, president of the influential business lobby Associated Industries of Florida, has released a position paper calling for a halt to the scheduled construction of three new, 1,300-bed prisons at a cost of $300 million. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” Bishop told the Miami Herald.

Florida has got 99,000 inmates behind bars and it will have an estimated 124,000 in the slammer by 2014. The figure is skyrocketing because “get tough” politicians voted in mandatory minimum sentences and mandatory life terms so that, in the words of Bill Bales, a criminology professor at Florida State University, “there is no release valve available, unlike in states that have parole.” Mandatory sentences may also discourage prisoners from trying to get time off for good behavior. 

“Many inmates are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes, including minor drug offenses,” The Times noted in an editorial last January 1st. In Hawaii, an estimated 30 percent of prisoners have been doing time on such charges. In an editorial last January 1, The Times noted, “although it has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it(the U.S.) has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. And for the first time in history, more than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars.”

There are grim signs those who run our prisons at all levels have lost their grip on their jobs. In California, health conditions in the prisons are so bad they are currently in the hands of a federal receiver, who said the state needs to spend $8 billion to rehab its old prisons and build new ones. 

“Overcrowding is dangerous for the prisoners, for the corrections officers and for the public,” said Michael Bien, a California lawyer for the inmates who asked Federal District Court judges to reduce the prison population by 52,000 over the next two years by early paroles of non-violent offenders. 

Mocking the concept that our prisons are "country clubs," one Federal inmate wrote in the Honolulu Weekly, “Can you imagine a country club where 130 snoring, stinking, farting guys sleep stacked on bunk beds arranged not even two feet apart in a tiny little dormitory and then stand in line in the morning to use one of six toilets, which are only rarely in working order at the same time?”

According to Human Rights Watch, mistreatment of prisoners is practically a tradition. In 1995, a federal judge found a stunning pattern of staff assaults, abusive use of electronic stun device guns, beatings, and brutality at Pelican Bay Prison in California, and concluded the violence “appears to be open, acknowledges, tolerated and sometimes expressly approved” by high ranking corrections officials. Another federal judge four years later concluded that Texas prisons were pervaded by a “culture of sadistic and malicious violence.”

“In recent years, U.S. prison inmates have been beaten with fists and batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them,” HRW says. 

What’s more, many prisoners are dumped into numbing solitary confinement not because of any infraction against prison rules but owing to their political views. As one man who experienced this wrote in the Socialist Worker last year: “There is no way to articulate the excruciating torture of sensory deprivation. Picture living in a cage, about the size of a bathroom. You are there 23 hours a day, day in and day out, year in and year out. You are allowed one hour a day out in a cage the size of a tiny living room. You are allowed one five-minute phone call every six months, which is monitored. Your mail and reading material is maliciously scrutinized and censored. When leaving your cage, you are subjected to a dehumanizing strip search which includes a genital and anal probe, and then handcuffed. You are completely under the control of prison guards who carry pepper gas and long, black batons that some refer to as "spic and n-word beaters." 

That’s one inmate’s perspective. Yet an overview report titled “Rights For All” by Amnesty International found: “Some prisoners are abused by other inmates, and guards fail to protect them. Others are assaulted by the guards themselves. Women and men are subjected to sexual, as well as physical, abuse. Overcrowded and underfunded prisons, many of them privatized, control inmates by isolating them for long periods and by using methods of restraint that are cruel, degrading and sometimes life-threatening. Victims include pregnant women, the mentally ill and even children.” And the Justice Department itself reported four years ago that sexual assaults on inmates is a "significant problem"in federal prisons.

Indeed, U.S. prisons have a long and tragic history of punishing innocent individuals. Historian Howard Zinn recalls that during World War One conscientious objectors in prisons were tied up and subjected to a form of what we today would call waterboarding. 

Senator Jim Webb, the Virginia Democrat and former Navy Secretary under President Reagan, has called for a national commission to probe the U.S. prison system. This is an urgent matter, particularly as the Bush regime outsourced a goodly fraction of the job to contractors Wackenhut and Correctional Corporation of America. 

The last thing this country needs, though, is another study of our prison system if it will only gather dust in bookcases on Capitol Hill. We need to take the profit out of prisons, beginning with the liberation of all inmates jailed on marijuana charges. (Note: I am not a user.) 

Too often, our jails are seen as money-making opportunities for those in charge. In Decatur, Ala., according to a published report, the sheriff fed prisoners on $1.75 a day, and pocketed the change, salting away $212,000 over the past three years while his charges went hungry and lost weight. Every prisoner helps create jobs and money-making opportunities for such sheriffs, as well as wardens, guards, social workers, psychiatrists, judges, bail bondsmen, etc.--- not the kind of jobs you would boast about in a democracy.

Perhaps if USA had cleaned up its deplorable prisons at home it would not be exporting them globally. It could not be charged with being The World’s Jailer. There are likely few abuses inflicted on Muslims in a Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib that haven’t been first tried in USA. It is ludicrous and hypocritical for a White House to claim it is exporting democracy while it ignores the abuse of its own imprisoned. 

As Tom Paine once opined on this subject: “When it shall be said in any country in the world, ‘My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive’--- when these things can be said then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.” Folks, we gotta ways to go.  

(Sherwood Ross formerly reported for the Chicago Daily News and the Miami Herald. He currently heads a public relations firm for non-profit organizations, book publishers, and good causes. Reach him at ).


Saturday, March 7, 2009; 2:12 PM 

What's the Big Idea? 
In The Nation's Prisons, A Silver Lining to the Economic Mess?

Will the nationwide economic mess force states to stop locking up so many non-violent offenders? That's what The Pew Center on the States suggested in a report last week. 

With state budgets facing their biggest shortfalls in decades, corrections, which eats up more than $50 billion a year nationwide, is a prime target for cuts. Last year it was the fastest expanding chunk of state budgets, and over the past two decades, its growth as a share of state spending has been second only to Medicaid. One in 31 adults (7.3 million Americans) is now caught up in the criminal justice system, either in jail, or on probation or parole, ranging from one in 13 Georgians to one in 88 adults in New Hampshire. 

For several decades, states have generally pursued a simple strategy when it came to criminals, Lock 'em up and throw away the key. Judges were given little leeway to modify prison sentences; numerous states passed laws mandating a lifetime in jail for three felonies. But that has led to massive overcrowding. And to the realization that constantly building prisons is not only a bad solution but also unaffordable. 

Last month, a federal court ordered California, which had a budget deficit of $40 billion, to release up to 55,000 prisoners over three years to provide the remaining 100,000 plus inmates with better health care. 

So, what should states do? Pew suggested that they consider releasing non-violent offenders to parole and probation programs, which are 20 times cheaper than prison, along with what it called community-based treatment programs. The cost savings could be huge. The average yearly cost of supervising a probationer last year was $1,250. A prisoner? $29,000. Currently, alternatives to prison are massively underfunded, the Pew report said. But the bad economy could help change that. 

Time was when politicians viewed to "demonstrate that I'm tough on crime," said Adam Gelb, who directed the report for Pew. Now they're focusing on how to "get better results at lower costs to taxpayers." Some of the reddest states are leading the charge. Instead of building eight more prisons at $904 million, Texas decided in 2007 to commit $241 million to expand probation and parole departments as well as residential options for non-violent offenders. Mississippi Gov. Hailey Barbour has been releasing non-violent offenders well before their sentences are up. Kansas, too. 

Gelb applauds these efforts. "The bad economy provides a window of opportunity for good policy," he said. 

-- John Pomfret 


Cash crisis forces California to free 55,000 prisoners

The debt-ridden state can no longer afford to keep inmates in an expensive and bloated penal system

By Guy Adams in Los Angele

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Getty Images
Inmates at Mule Creek Prison in California have been moved into the gymnasium because of overcrowding

There's not been a greater escape since Steve McQueen jumped aboard his motorcycle. The state of California has been ordered to release more than 55,000 prison inmates to ease pressure on its ailing penal system.

Federal judges ruled last week that California's 33 adult jails have become so overcrowded that they violate the constitutional rights of inmates, subjecting them to "cruel and unusual" punishment that is causing at least one death a month. Just over a third of the state's 158,000 prisoners must be set free by 2012 to ensure that basic healthcare is provided to those who remain behind, the judges said. The majority will go through early release and parole schemes.

Critics claim the ruling amounts to throwing open the doors of the biggest prison system in America, and will endanger the public. California's Attorney General, Jerry Brown, announced an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court, saying: "This order is a blunt instrument that does not recognise the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed."

Jerry Powers, who heads the state's chief probation officers' association, called it "a game of Russian roulette".

But regardless of their concerns, something needs to be done: California's prison population has increased by nearly 80 per cent since 1990, and its penitentiaries are operating at nearly double their intended capacity of 84,000. A rise in the number of elderly prisoners is also affecting resources; 11 per cent of inmates are aged 50 or over and the average cost of housing a single prisoner is now $46,000 (£32,000) a year.

Building more prisons is not an option, since state finances are in such disarray that public workers are forced to take two unpaid days' leave each month. The state government is running an annual deficit of $12bn. 

The prison crisis is not limited to California. In Des Moines, Iowa, county officials plan to start charging prisoners for toilet paper. Michigan, where Detroit has America's highest murder rate, will release 4,000 prisoners who have served their minimum sentences. New Jersey, Carolina and Vermont are putting drug-addicted offenders into treatment rather than prison. Louisiana, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, is hoping to reform a system that spends more on prisons than on higher education.

These measures are controversial in a nation that views prison as a place for retribution rather than rehabilitation. Many states have a "three strikes" rule that means relatively petty criminals are given life sentences.


Judges tentatively order Calif. inmate release
Associated Press Writer 
Published Monday, Feb. 09, 2009


Kinslo DeWitt, an inmate at Deuel Vocational 
Institute near Tracy, reads a book in a triple-bunk area on 
Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007.


SACRAMENTO -- A special panel of federal judges tentatively ruled Monday that California will have to release tens of thousands of inmates to relieve overcrowding over the next several years.

The judges said no other solution will improve conditions so poor that inmates die regularly of suicides or lack of proper care.

The state can cut the population of its 33 adult prisons through changes in parole and other policies without endangering the public, the judges said. 

Reducing the prison population "could be achieved through reform measures that would not adversely affect public safety, and might well have a positive effect. This is particularly true considering that California's overcrowded prison system is itself, as the Governor as well as experts who have testified before the Court have recognized, a public safety hazard," the San Francisco-based panel said in a 10-page order.

The three judges did not set a final population figure, saying that will come later. They said they may hold more hearings before making the decision final.

In Monday's tentative ruling, the panel said they want the state to present a plan to trim the population of the nation's largest state prison system in two to three years.

"There are simply too many prisoners for the existing capacity," they wrote. "Evidence offered at trial was overwhelmingly to the effect that overcrowding is the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions that have been found to exist in the California prisons."

The order came less than a week after the judges finished hearing two days of closing arguments. They said then that they wanted to quickly issue a tentative ruling in hopes of forcing the state to take steps on its own or reach a settlement with attorneys representing inmates.

In Monday's order, they offered the services of a court-appointed referee who could help with settlement talks. Previous negotiations failed, forcing the trial that took place over 14 days in November and December. 


Former legislator fighting prison overcrowding

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2009 5:59 PM PST

For many years, Larry Bowler of Elk Grove was one of the most prominent members of the California legislature. Before that he served 30 years with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

Today, Bowler is officially retired but he remains as active as ever with interests ranging from law enforcement programs to an interest in California historic railroading. One of Bowler’s current projects concerns prison overcrowding. He said, “This overcrowding situation is sucking money out of the state.”

He added this problem is costing $10 billion per year and is growing.

Former Senator Bob Presley, former CHP Commissioner Spike Helmick and Bowler found their concern was mutual and decided to create the “Presley Group.” Twelve years ago Bowler and a former lobbyist created a heavy-duty truck driving school for parolees. Recognizing that recidivism in the California Department of Corrections was 70 percent, Bowler found that through effective and efficient job training that figure could be reduced to less than 10 percent. Since then, according to Bowler, the truck driving school has been documented at 7 percent recidivism.

“Our school has been given the Peter F. Drucker Foundation Award, which resulted in the finding of the 7 percent recidivism, “stated Bowler. “This award was presented for the most innovative collaboration between the school districts, unions and service organizations.”

Bowler said the California Department of Corrections has refused to consider the training concept in spite of it having been presented to them over a year ago. He commented the three principals of the Presley Group are in agreement that the Department of Corrections ignores innovative concepts because it would affect the status quo.

“The CDC administration, in the opinion of the three of us, is concerned with job security because a decrease in prison population would equate a decrease in prison jobs,” stated Bowler. “The CDC would like to build many prisons all over the state to spread the problem. They would like to create 500 bed mini prisons. One controversial area is the CDC desire to build such a facility in Madison, near Woodland. CDC has offered the Yolo County Supervisors $30 million to obtain approval to build the prison.”

He said the people of Madison have sued Yolo County and the CDC to prohibit the prison in this small community.

According to Bowler the Presley Group, working in collaboration with community colleges and adult education programs, service organization and existing rehabilitation contractors, would eliminate the perceived need for additional prisons.

“A unique ‘inside-outside’ intern training program has been successfully operated for 12 years through the truck driving program,” said Bowler. “It can be done. This program proves it.”

Bower added he will meet again soon with Matt Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, to discuss this new and different approach to lessen prison overcrowding by dealing with recidivists. He said as it stands today 70 percent of parolees are doing “life on the installment plan.”

“This tragedy can be most easily approached by attacking recidivism at both the state and county level,” stated Bowler. “The Presley Group is composed of active and retired professionals from the CDC Rehabilitation system, including residents of Elk Grove.”

Bowler stated in his present capacity retirement doesn’t mean inactivity. He also serves as chairman of the board of the Elk Grove Police Activities League, which is an effort to reach out to young people to keep them out of the local jail and state prison system. 

“We retirees have so much to offer with our experience, education and wisdom.”


Sacred cow prisons wasting taxpayers money 
By Thomas Elias
Tuesday, December 30, 2008 

There is no more sacred a cow in California state government than the prison system, whose population has multiplied by seven since 1980 to a total of about 170,000.

Even while politicians incessantly say theyre looking for every dime of waste, they never finger prisons. They should.

Fear of crime was the initial reason for this untouchable status, which started as Californians imposed a variety of mandatory sentencing rules, including the 1994 three-strikes-youre-out law. These led to building new prisons that quickly became as overcrowded as the old ones, eventually making the prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the single most powerful special interest in Sacramento.

Sacred cow status usually means that no one looks hard at what youre doing or spending.

Thats how its been for the prison system until very recently, when a federal judge concluded the state on its own would never improve substandard medical care for all those convicts, whose upkeep becomes a public responsibility when the government takes control over them.

Emphasis has been on an $8 billion cost estimate ever since that judge appointed a receiver to bring prison medical care up to where it no longer amounts to cruel and unusual punishment (more on that estimate in an upcoming column).

But the court receiver, McGeorge School of Law professor, J. Clark Kelso, has also discovered phenomenal waste so far unreported elsewhere, mostly because the prisons sacred cow status allowed an absence of oversight.

It turns out that when prisoners become ill or injured today, theyre often taken to local hospitals for treatment. And the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation now pretty much pays doctors and hospitals whatever they ask for those services. Plus, the prisons have rarely verified that bills they pay are accurate.

Therefore, Kelso said in an unusually frank hourlong interview the other day, There is a significant likelihood of fraud in the system. He estimated the combination of high payments and overbilling costs the state at least $100 million yearly. It could be much more. The department has no monitoring system in place to be sure services billed are actually delivered, Kelso revealed.

Most serious, the prison system lacks negotiated payment setups like those used by all health insurance companies, which generally pay a fraction of what hospitals and doctors often call usual and customary charges.

The California Hospital Association denies any fraud, with external affairs vice president Jan Emerson saying, Im afraid Mr. Kelso is badly mistaken on that.

Responded Kelso: Ive been around government more than 20 years. Theres always fraud when theres no oversight.

Even the CHA agrees state prisons pay more for services than either insurance companies or Medicare. They have refused to negotiate with most hospitals, Emerson said. This apparent fact is an indictment of decades worth of prison officials.

Plus, Kelso says that whenever a prison doctor recommends that a convict go to an outside hospital, he or she goes. No set standards determine when prisoners should or should not get outside treatment, with costs therefore unlimited. Conditions that one doctor might treat with aspirin can lead another to send patients outside, complete with escorting guards and high costs.

There have been no effective controls on spending and billing, adds Kelso. We think as many as 30 percent to 40 percent of referrals outside could be unnecessary. So he plans to install a system of checks on both costs and outside hospital use by the end of 2009. If it saves $100 million or more, as Kelso guesses, that money would stay in the states general fund for use by schools, parks or wherever legislators decide.

As for what effect losing so much money might have on community hospitals, some of which are only marginally solvent, no one knows. Thats in part because of the startling fact that no one now knows exactly how many prisoners get outside care.

Altogether, this picture is a stunning example of waste and lack of checks on a massive government program.

Which implies its high time to look at some other untouchables associated with the increased prison population and its astronomical costs. The main one of these is the three-strikes law, which demands doubled sentences for second-time felons and 25 years to life for three-time losers, even the nonviolent.

Unless its changed, that law will soon see California prisons operating the worlds largest geriatric hospital system, with many thousands of convicts staying long after theyre a threat to anyone at a cost topping $100,000 per year for a typical inmate with chronic illness.

But even in the current budget morass, neither Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nor any state legislative leader has looked to either prison reform or sentencing changes as part of a budget solution.

Thats what we get with sacred cows.

Thomas Elias is author of The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Governments Campaign to Squelch It, now available in an updated third printing. His email address is

Judge leans toward early release of Calif inmates
By DON THOMPSON Associated Press Writer
Posted: 12/02/2008 04:52:16 PM PST

SAN FRANCISCO—A federal judge on Tuesday said releasing inmates early may be the best remaining option for ensuring that California prisoners receive adequate medical care. 

The comments came during a trial focused on overcrowding in the state's 33 adult prisons, which inmates' attorneys say is so severe that it leads to medical neglect and malfeasance. 

A special three-judge panel meeting in San Francisco clearly signaled its willingness to restrict the number of inmates in California prisons. But the judges abruptly decided not to make a formal ruling this week that crowding is so severe that it leads to unconstitutional conditions. 

Instead, the judges said they will continue hearing testimony and issue a single ruling later that could include ordering the state to free tens of thousands of inmates. The trial originally was to proceed in separate phases. 

On Tuesday, two of the jurists criticized the state for failing to support an $8 billion, court-sanctioned plan to build new medical facilities. 

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton said releasing thousands of inmates before their sentences are up may be the only option unless lawmakers change their minds and approve the construction program. 

"Something's better than nothing if you're desperate," he said. 

State lawmakers have refused to support the plan, which was proposed by the court-appointed receiver who oversees inmate medical care. It calls for improving medical and mental health treatment by building space for 10,000 inmates. 

Lawmakers say the state can't afford it and already has made money available for prison construction. Republicans say releasing inmates early will jeopardize public safety. 

Karlton said the court is left to focus on an early release of inmates because of the "enormous uncertainty" about whether the medical centers will ever be built. He noted that space is at such a premium that some mentally ill inmates receive counseling inside prison bathrooms. 

"You could take the office space out of the toilet," Karlton said during Tuesday's hearing in U.S. District Court. "This is so serious—there's nothing funny about it—but it's bizarre." 

A second judge on the panel, Appellate Judge Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles, also said he thinks trial testimony so far has shown that California's prison system lacks adequate treatment space for its 156,300 inmates. The system was designed to hold fewer than 100,000. 

The hearing consolidates several court cases filed on behalf of inmates. Overcrowding is just one symptom of dysfunction within the state's correctional system, which has had many of its operations placed under the authority of federal courts in recent years. 

Karlton said the three judges are trying to strike a balance—not seeking to interfere with the state's sovereignty while correcting conditions so poor they violate inmates' constitutional rights. 

Reinhardt said the judges could set a cap for the prison population without directly ordering that inmates be released. 

"The purposes of a cap would give the state the choice on how to get there," Reinhardt said. 

Witnesses testifying for the Schwarzenegger administration and for local law enforcement officials opposed the idea of a cap or an early release order. 

While prisons are "terribly overcrowded," the state is making improvements, said Robin Dezember, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's chief deputy secretary for health care. 

He said easing crowding alone would not improve treatment for seriously mentally ill inmates. 

Witnesses representing county district attorneys and probation officers testified that freeing tens of thousands of inmates early would overwhelm county probation and rehabilitation services.


Editorial: Time to pay for getting tough on crime
Published Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008

There's an old kids' joke, "How do you know if there's an elephant under your bed?" Answer: "Your nose is touching the ceiling."

As California lawmakers and the governor grapple with the reality of multibillion-dollar deficits stretching into the future, they can no longer ignore the elephant in the rotunda: prison spending. That elephant has become a mammoth because lawmakers over the last 25 years have created longer and longer sentences and reduced the ability of prisoners to shave off prison time for good behavior.

The charts show the result. A greater proportion of the state's population now is in prison and a greater share of the prison population is aged. Older people have greater health needs and so cost a lot to keep in prison. They are taking up beds, producing overcrowded prisons. 

Those in prison aren't eligible for Medicare, the federal health program for the nation's elderly. Nor are they eligible for Medi-Cal, the health program for the poor in which costs are shared between the state and the federal government. So the entire cost of health care for older, sick prisoners falls on the state.

All of this is now in the federal courts because the state has refused to create alternatives for dealing with feeble, chronically ill prisoners to reduce prison population – or to pay for building facilities to house these prisoners.

One court is examining whether to cap prison population. Another is looking at whether to force the state to pay for seven 1,500-bed facilities. Both courts could make decisions as early as January.

The need for lawmakers and the governor to act is urgent – before the courts impose solutions. They should get on this immediately, working on three fronts:

• There's no avoiding building some 1,500-bed facilities to house older, infirm prisoners. Some remain dangerous, and alternatives to prison for those who aren't dangerous would take some time to implement.

J. Clark Kelso, the court-appointed prison health care receiver, has a plan for three phases of building. Phase I would build three facilities at a cost of $3.43 billion. Unless the state in the next two years has alternatives for 4,800 to 5,900 older, infirm prisoners who can't function in a regular prison,the state must build these facilities.

But if they take steps now to reduce the older, infirm prison population before 2012 , lawmakers can avoid building four more facilities in Phases II and III.

And they can avoid having the court take money directly out of the general fund by passing a bond package that would spread costs over 25 years and begin payments three years from now. Senate Republicans who killed that option need to revive it.

• Corrections officials should evaluate all 22,500 prisoners age 50 and over and determine which of them pose a public safety risk.

This is not about releasing prisoners out of compassion. It is about economic reality.

Even prisoners who committed violent crimes should be evaluated – such as a guy who murdered someone when he was 28 and has spent the last 30 years in prison, but who now is blind, diabetic, in a wheelchair, and has failing kidneys.

The evaluations should look at their behavior in prison and what percentage of their sentence has been served. For those who do not pose a safety threat, the state should find alternative placement in the community – and help them apply for Medi-Cal and/or Medicare if they have no family with insurance.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have urged the federal government to help California during the financial crisis. Getting low-risk prisoners out of state prison is a way for the state to tap federal health care dollars.

• The Legislature should establish an independent sentencing commission, as other states have, to provide new sentencing guidelines. The commission is needed to organize California's 1,000 sentencing laws and create guidelines that constrain judges' discretion but also provide for some flexibility in sentencing.

If California does not change its sentencing system, the number of prisoners age 50 and over is projected to go from 22,500 today to more than 40,500 – a whopping 25.6 percent of the prison population – by 2018.

It's no mystery what prevents the state from dealing with this issue: Politicians of both parties fall over each other to see who's tougher on crime. The latest is Attorney General Jerry Brown asserting, falsely, that if Californians want "top-drawer care," they have to "go to prison." You can tell who's running for governor in 2010.

So here's another joke on California. What did lawmakers and the governor say when the elephant moved into the Capitol? Nothing! They didn't notice.

Except this is no longer a laughing matter. Our nose is flat against the ceiling already, and the elephant is still growing.


Guards: Crowded Calif. prisons neglect ill inmates
Friday, November 21, 2008

By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer

Inmates with open, bleeding wounds routinely use communal showers and suicidal prisoners are sometimes kept for hours inside small cages, witnesses testified in a lawsuit over state prison crowding.

The four guards who testified before a three-judge panel Thursday supported earlier evidence suggesting that substandard medical and mental health care is a result of jam-packed prisons.

The state, which argues that prison conditions are improving, was scheduled to begin its defense Friday.

California's 33 adult prisons are designed to hold about 100,000 inmates, but currently have more than 156,000.

Federal judges considering the class-action lawsuits already have ruled that medical and mental health care is so poor in California prisons that it violates constitutional standards, sometimes contributing to inmates' deaths.

If the panel determines that overcrowding is the cause, it could order the early release of thousands of inmates, a move opposed by the Schwarzenegger administration. The three-judge panel began hearing the case this week and hopes to complete the entire process before Christmas.

Among those testifying Thursday was guard Gary Benson, who works in a medical triage unit at Folsom State Prison outside Sacramento. He said as many as 50 inmates at a time typically wait two to five hours inside a 12-foot by 20-foot holding area for medical or mental health treatment.

He said he also routinely sees inmates in communal showers with "bleeding, oozing" staph infections. Benson said he contracted an antibiotic-resistant staph infection in July 2006. Inmates with the infections are not segregated and such diseases often spread inside the prisons, he said.

Brenda Gibbons, a guard in a 128-bed mental health unit at Salinas Valley State Prison, said suicidal inmates were kept overnight in cages the size of telephone booths until crisis cells became available.

She also said some severely mentally ill inmates wait more than a year to be transferred to mental health facilities.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents more than 30,000 guards, joined with the inmates' rights attorneys. Union attorney Gregg Adam said the crowding creates "a dehumanizing effect on correctional staff."


Punishment to fit the crime

One of California’s major, unresolved issues is the serious overcrowding in the state’s prison system. Unfortunately, the problem is generally off the public’s radar screen because most law-abiding folks simply don’t care what happens to criminals once they’re behind bars.

But apparently we will be forced to pay attention in the very near future.

Several months of negotiations between prison officials and inmate-rights attorneys have gone nowhere, and a federal court has ordered a trial for mid-November, the outcome of which could cost taxpayers a bundle.

The core problem is that California has a state prison system designed and built to hold about 100,000 adult inmates, but the most recent inmate census shows a prison population of nearly 160,000.

The talks between corrections officials and inmates’ attorneys included putting a cap on the population at 158 percent of design capacity — but that still would have 130,000-plus inmates living in structures designed to hold only 100,000.

In addition to the cap, negotiations involved a proposal to send some state inmates to county jails to serve out their sentences. That helps relieve the pressure on the state prison system — by dumping the problem in the laps of local jurisdictions.

In Santa Barbara County’s case, such a plan would be disastrous. The county jail in Goleta is badly overcrowded, and has been for years; it’s already under a court order that forces constant early releases to help lower its population.

We don’t see how dumping state prisoners on counties will solve the problem. It can only make it worse.

The state’s options, however, are limited. A bill cleared the Assembly last year that would authorize $7.4 billion in bonds to expand prison capacity statewide. The problem with expanding the system is that it gives the false impression that we can just send more criminals to prison, which in a short amount of time would get the state back into an overcrowded situation.

There is a fundamental flaw in California’s approach to incarceration, one that building more prisons will not fix. This state needs more and better diversion programs for low-level criminals. The worst offenders, those who pose a true risk to society, should be locked up. The lesser offenders would be better served — and taxpayers’ interest would be better served — if they were taught how to avoid another prison sentence after they’re released.

July 17, 2008


Schwarzenegger can ship inmates out of state, court rules
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

(06-04) 17:54 PDT SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was within his rights to declare a state of emergency at California's overcrowded prisons in 2006 and begin transferring inmates out of state, an appeals court ruled Wednesday over the objections of the prison guards union.

The ruling by the state Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento overturned a judge's decision and was welcomed by Schwarzenegger, who is separately defending the state against lawsuits by inmates seeking to reduce the overall prison population and improve the prisons' health care system. A federal judge has transferred control of prison health care in California to a court-appointed manager after ruling that the system violated constitutional standards.

There are nearly 160,000 inmates in the 33 state prisons, which were designed to hold about 83,000. The state is planning construction that will expand the capacity of state prisons and county jails by 53,000.

A referee appointed by a federal court panel has proposed measures to reduce the prison population by 27,000 over four years, to 133,000. The measures would include alternatives to prison for some parole violators and felons facing short sentences.

Wednesday's ruling "comes at a critical juncture in our prison reform efforts," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "I am pleased that their decision allows out-of-state transfers to continue while our comprehensive reforms to reduce overcrowding are fully implemented."

Laurie Hepler, a lawyer for the prison guards union and another prison employee union that challenged the inmate transfers, said her clients disagreed with the ruling and would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Schwarzenegger issued the order in October 2006 after a special legislative session on prison overcrowding fizzled, with Democrats seeking changes in sentencing laws while Republicans called for prison expansion. As the inmate population continued to climb, 16,000 prisoners occupied bunks in prison gyms and other temporary quarters.

Schwarzenegger has said as many as 8,000 inmates could be shipped out of state. So far, nearly 3,900 prisoners have been transferred to out-of-state prisons run by private companies under contracts with California.

The transfers have continued despite an April 2007 ruling by a Sacramento County judge that Schwarzenegger had acted illegally. Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian agreed with the unions that state law allows a governor to issue an emergency order only when local officials need state help in responding to a disaster, and that the use of private prison employees violated civil service laws.

The appeals court had put Ohanesian's ruling on hold while the state appealed. In its ruling Wednesday, the court said the governor can issue orders to respond to emergencies in state institutions that may endanger residents.

In this case, the court said, the lack of space in state prisons was causing overcrowding in local jails, forcing counties to release some inmates who might commit more crimes. Overcrowding also increased the risk of diseases that could spread outside the prisons and had led to local water pollution from sewage spills caused by overtaxed prison wastewater systems, the court said.

The court also said California's civil service rules allow the state to employ private contractors when public employees are not available to meet urgent needs. The planned expansion of state prisons will take years to complete, and the prison system will need five years to eliminate staffing shortages, the court said.

"California cannot build or retrofit the prisons needed overnight, no matter how much money it invests to solve the problem," Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland said in the 3-0 ruling. The only available lockups are in other states and are staffed by private employees, he said.

Read the ruling 
The ruling can be read online at:

Overcrowding Opinion

E-mail Bob Egelko at


Schwarzenegger drops plan for early release of 22,000 inmates
By Andy Furillo -
Published 12:40 am PDT Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Jose Solorio welcomed the governor's change of heart, saying Californians don't want to see prisoners released early. rian Baer / Sacramento Bee file, February 2008 

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has dumped his plan to release about 22,000 lower-risk inmates from prison before they complete their terms, The Bee learned Monday.

The revised budget he will present on Wednesday will jettison the plan, which would have freed prisoners doing time for crimes such as drug possession and car theft who had less than 20 months to go on their terms.

The governor had sought the change as part of a 10 percent, across-the-board general fund budget cut to deal with a multibillion-dollar deficit.

His plan was unlikely, however, to win support in upcoming budget negotiations. Not a single legislator in the state had expressed support for the idea.

Press secretary Aaron McLear confirmed that Schwarzenegger will drop the early release plan but declined to comment further.

Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana, welcomed its demise.

"I'm sure the governor realized that up and down the state, no one wants to see prisoners released early," Solorio said. "I was an early advocate for dropping that plan, and I'm glad that he's realizing people need to serve their time."

Critics of the state prison system had seen the early release proposal as a possible opening to a wholesale overhaul of California's approach to handling criminals.

Dan Macallair, the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, expressed disappointment with the governor's decision to back away from early release.

"The correctional crisis in California cannot be solved through the normal political processes of Sacramento," Macallair said. "This is just another example of that. Nobody has the courage to do the right thing."

California's prisons are jammed to about twice their designed capacity. The overall prison population is a little more than 170,000.

In submitting the early release proposal in January, the governor's budget writers said it could have saved the state nearly $1.2 billion through the 2009-10 fiscal year.

On Monday, administration sources said the main factor in their decision to withdraw the idea is that the inmate population has been dropping on its own over the past year. They said the prison system is now housing 2,107 fewer inmates every day in the current budget year than the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had anticipated. The sources asked for anonymity because the revised budget has not yet been made public.

Fewer inmates coming in from the courts and fewer parolees returning to prison for violating the technical conditions of their releases from custody are accounting for the lower population numbers, the sources said.

Together, the result has been an estimated savings this year of $27.9 million, they said. Projections for next year indicate the potential for another $78.2 million in savings.

Along with early release, the administration had sought to achieve budget savings through what it called a "summary parole" plan.

Schwarzenegger intends to stick with that piece of his proposal. Offenders who violate their parole conditions but don't commit new crimes wouldn't be returned to prison under that plan. They would still be subject to warrantless searches by local law enforcement.

While the governor is planning to withdraw the early release plan, efforts to cap the prison population are still the subject of ongoing litigation in the federal courts.

"There's more than one way to skin a cat," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in San Rafael. His firm is representing inmates in cases where the state's provision of medical and mental health care in the prisons has been found to be unconstitutional.

Editorial: Lawmakers should get real on prison crowding

Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, April 20, 2008

After two decades of longer and longer prison sentences, California's prisons are overcrowded, and they are housing increasingly older, sicker prisoners.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers have known since July 2006 that if they do nothing to change sentencing practices, California will need to build 5,000 prison medical beds and 5,000 mental health beds within 10 years for chronically ill, physically impaired, feeble inmates.

Yet legislators were shocked, shocked last week to hear what it will cost to build these facilities: $6 billion.

Well, now they have a choice.

They can continue with current sentencing practices and face the fact that they've got to foot the $6 billion bill for the facilities.

Or they can change course. In the short-term, that means evaluating all 22,000 prisoners who are over age 50 for possible release or lower-cost options (electronic bracelets, halfway houses, etc.). Crime rates for 57-year-olds are a whole lot less than for 22-year-olds. Long-term, it means fixing the broken sentencing system. Start with placing a moratorium on lengthening existing sentences.

Legislators no longer can sit in utter denial of the consequences of existing sentencing patterns. California's prison health system is so broken that a federal judge took the drastic step of placing it in federal receivership.

And the federal receiver has run out of patience.

Assuming that California will do nothing to change sentencing practices, he has proposed building seven free-standing facilities of roughly 1,500 beds each at existing prisons or on state-owned land. The construction schedule would be ambitious: breaking ground every three months beginning January 2009 and opening all seven facilities between January 2011 and July 2013.

Consulting teams have estimated that the state already is short between 3,224 and 3,500 beds for housing chronically ill, physically impaired prisoners. And if lawmakers do nothing to change sentencing practices, that increases by roughly 230 beds a year. By 2017, the continued aging of the population will require between 4,970 and 5,750 beds for inmates with long-term care needs. Dealing with the one in six prisoners who are severely mentally ill adds another 4,292 beds.

Currently, the prison system has only 800 in-house medical beds distributed across the state's 33 prisons. These, however, are for short-term care only. The prison system has no beds for those with chronic conditions or ongoing physical needs.

This shortage has a number of effects. First, older, sick prisoners take up regular prison cells that younger prisoners could occupy – adding to prison overcrowding. Second, the long-term ill and impaired population is taking up expensive short-term acute beds. Third, when the 800 existing medical beds are filled, prisoners are transported to community hospitals with prison guards at huge cost.

Lawmakers no longer can avoid the tough decisions. If they choose to stay on the same sentencing path, they have to build facilities and pay the day-to-day costs of dealing with aging prisoners. They can haggle over details to reduce building costs, but they have to face the fact that the cost will be huge. Or they can change course. Quickly. The federal receiver isn't interested in more delays.


Dangerously overcrowded: State needs to act now
Article Launched: 04/11/2008 05:52:12 AM PDT

A stabbing attack on four officers at the California Correctional Institution near Bakersfield last week should come as a surprise to no one. 

Overcrowded prisons are powder kegs. 

The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation knows it, the governor knows it and the general public knows it. 

What no one seems to know, however, is what can be done to ease the situation. 

Numerous lawsuits have fallen short, the judgments simply ignored. Three federal judges have threatened to take the matter into their own hands, but no decision has been rendered yet. 

Two court-appointed receivers (one at a time during the past two years) have addressed the situation, and while some inroads have been made to fix medial care issues, nothing has eased the prison population boom. 

The governor had to declare a state of emergency just to ship some inmates out of state to private prisons. Despite his efforts, California's 33 prisons - with a capacity of about 100,000 inmates - hold about 170,000. The conditions impact inmate medical care and mental health services; at the same time, they reduce the opportunity for recreation, education and rehabilitation. 

The conditions also mean that thousands of correctional officers and prison employees put their lives on the line working - sometimes on overtime - in prisons so full that inmates are sleeping in dayrooms, classrooms and gymnasiums. When dangerous individuals are forced to live in such conditions, violence is likely. With two state prisons in Vacaville, it is a serious concern for this community. 

In 1997, there were 6,225 attacks reported on inmates and staff in California prisons. In 2006 - the most recent statistics available - there were 9,090 such attacks. Of those, 3,873 were attacks on prison employees and 938 involved weapons. 

Although the governor opposes a federally mandated cap on prison population, he does have a plan in the works to release about 20,000 inmates early. 

While it sounds alarming, there is a practical argument for it. The inmates who would qualify for early release will have served the majority of their sentences. And early release candidates should only be those deemed most unlikely to reoffend. 

However, the governor's plan to eliminate some 4,500 correctional officer positions to save about $400 million from the state's stressed budget raises some concern. While fewer inmates will mean fewer corrections positions needed, it should also mean a greater need for rehabilitation-focused employees. And though it may take some time, a greater focus on rehabilitation should help reduce prison population in the future. 

The state has set aside $7.8 billion to build new prisons and jails. It will take years before those facilities are available. In the meantime, the state needs a firm action plan, instead of waiting for federal judges to step in. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to corrections, little gets done unless a federal judge is involved. 

Overcrowding may be linked to violence in California prisons
By DON THOMPSON Associated Press Writer
Article Launched: 04/04/2008 05:39:19 PM PDT

SACRAMENTO—The stabbing attack on four guards at one overcrowded state prison this week and a racially sparked brawl at another mark the type of violence that guards, inmates' attorneys and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have been worried about for years. 

The violence comes at a critical juncture for the nation's largest state prison system. 

Later this year, a panel of federal judges will consider whether the crowding has become so severe that the state must cap the inmate population or release some prisoners early. Meanwhile, lawmakers are considering a Schwarzenegger proposal to save money for the deficit-ridden state by releasing more than 20,000 inmates before their sentences end. 

"For the last two years, we've said something worse than this was inevitable," said Chuck Alexander, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, referring to this week's prison unrest. "It's just a matter of where and when it's going to hit. In our view, it's a precursor of what's to come." 

On Thursday, two inmates armed with homemade knives attacked guards at the California Correctional Institution about 40 miles southeast of Bakersfield. One of the guards remained hospitalized Friday with a skull fracture and stab wounds. 

A second attack erupted Friday. A dozen inmates were injured during a brawl in a crowded dormitory at the California Institution for Men in Chino, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Prison officials described it as an attack by Hispanic inmates on white prisoners. Five were sent to hospitals, including two with puncture wounds. 

"There's more violence. The prisoners are unsafe, and there is less safety for the officers, as well," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in San Rafael. 

He is among inmates' rights attorneys asking the panel of three federal judges to order the state to reduce the prisons' population. In an unusual alliance, the prison guards' union has joined the push. 

Schwarzenegger opposes a federally mandated population cap. But the Republican governor is proposing the early release of some 22,000 inmates and eliminating about 4,500 prison guard positions to help shave $400 million from the budget of the state corrections department. 

Michael Bien, whose San Francisco law firm also is seeking a reduced inmate population, said the early release plan is irresponsible because guards already are working large amounts of overtime and are under mounting stress. 

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Lisa Page said the governor's plan would retain the current guard-to-inmate ratio while freeing space for rehabilitation programs. 

"We'll continue to see further reductions in our prison population as we do more to rehabilitate the state's current prisoners and make sure they stay out of prison once they're released," Page said. 

In October 2006, Schwarzenegger declared an emergency to allow 8,000 inmates to be sent to private prisons in other states. It was part of an effort to relieve overcrowding that eventually led to a $7.8 billion prison and jail building program. 

At the time, he warned that California's overcrowded prisons could explode into violence, leading to the kind of riots that killed 43 in Attica, New York, in 1971. 

Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, faulted Schwarzenegger for not doing enough since then to reduce crowding, end labor unrest with the prison guards union and increase rehabilitation programs. 

"This is the beginning of the long, hot summer," said Romero, one of the Legislature's experts on prison reform. "It does take, sadly and unfortunately, something like this to snap people's necks around to say these are the consequences of overcrowding." 

California's 33 prisons have a capacity of roughly 100,000 inmates but hold about 170,000. A commission headed by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian advised Schwarzenegger in 2004 that the prisons could safely hold about 135,000. 

Overcrowding means more tension, less opportunity for recreation, education and other rehabilitation programs, less interaction with guards, counselors and visitors, and more difficulty in monitoring inmates. Many bunks are set up in converted gymnasiums and classrooms. 

The conditions are blamed for a variety of problems, including poor inmate medical care and mental health services, that have prompted inmates and advocacy groups to file numerous lawsuits. 

Some of those lawsuits eventually led to federal court oversight and the three-judge panel that will consider how to address the array of difficulties this summer. 

Chino Mayor Dennis Yates said the dilapidated prison dormitory where Friday's fight between inmates took place was built to house 60 men but holds nearly 200. 

"It's a ticking bomb down there," he said. 

The California Correctional Institution, where Thursday's attack on the guards took place, was built in 1933 and has been expanded to hold about 2,800 inmates. It currently has about 4,700 inmates but held about 5,500 just a few weeks ago. 

Assaults on inmates and staff increased statewide, along with the size of the prison population, from 6,225 in 1997 to 9,090 in 2006, corrections department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said. At the same time, the number involving weapons declined from 2,123 to 1,869. 

For 2006, the most recent year available, there were 3,873 assaults on prison employees. Of those, 938 involved weapons. 

Out-of-state inmate transfers and improvements in parole and rehabilitation programs have helped reduce the prison population from a record of 173,479 in October 2006 to 170,371, as of this week. The number of inmates in makeshift dormitories has dropped from 19,618 last August to 15,111. 

"We've made a lot of progress," Thornton said. "We're definitely moving in the right direction." 

Yet the corrections department has pushed back deadlines it set to begin building the 53,000 prison and jail cells authorized under the multibillion dollar expansion program. 


Associated Press Writer Robert Jablon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


Schwarzenegger proposes to release 22,000 prisoners
By Andy Furillo -
Published 6:22 pm PST Thursday, December 20, 2007

In what may be the largest early release of inmates in United States history, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration is proposing to open the prison gates next year to some 22,000 low-risk offenders.

According to details of a budget proposal made available to The Bee, the administration will ask the Legislature to authorize the release of certain non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders who have less than 20 months to go on their terms.

The proposal would cut the prison population by 22,159 inmates and save the cash-strapped state $256 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and more than $780 million through June 30, 2010. Besides reducing the inmate population, the proposal also calls for a reduction in more than 4,000 prison jobs, most of which would involve correctional officers.

A gubernatorial spokesman said no final decisions have been made.

The administration, which is looking at across the board budget cuts to stem a budget deficit pegged as high as $14 billion, is looking for more savings in prison spending by shifting all lower-risk parolees into what officials are describing as a "summary" system. The shift also would require legislative approval.

Under "summary" parole, offenders would remain on supervised release and still be subject to searches by local law enforcement at any time, but they would not be returned to prison on a technical violation. It would take a new crime prosecuted by local law enforcement officials to return the offenders to prison.

A summary parole system would cut the daily average population of released offenders by 18,522 in the next fiscal year and result in a further prison population reduction of 6,249, according to the proposal. It would save the state $98 million in the 2008-09 fiscal year and $329 million through 2009-10. The number of job cuts in the parole proposal will hit 1,660.

Gubernatorial spokesman Adam Mendelsohn declined to confirm the proposal outlined to The Bee, but reaffirmed the administration's belief that all departments need to cut spending across the board by 10 percent next year. Schwarzenegger "has not made any decisions" on where the cuts will take place, Mendelsohn said, including whether they will involve the early release of inmates or staff cuts.

"He has not made any final determination on what his January budget will look like, but there are many, many scenarios that have been presented to the governor, and he is working extremely hard to figure out how we manage this budget situation through cuts and reduced spending," Mendelsohn.

The corrections budget proposal outlined Thursday would not cut any of the prison department's bond funding, including the recently enacted, $7.9 billion Assembly Bill 900 spending, nor would it affect the expenditures of the federal medical receiver, who is in charge of $1.5 billion of the agency's total portfolio. The Corrections Standards Authority and the Division of Juvenile Justice would also be excluded from the proposed cuts.

For a complete story, see Friday's Bee.


Judge orders state to give documents to inmates rights' lawyers
By Andy Furillo -
Published 1:10 pm PST Thursday, December 6, 2007

A federal judge today gave the state until noon Friday to turn over some 10,000 documents to inmates rights' lawyers who want to cap the state's overcrowded prisons.

The plaintiffs' lawyers said they believe the materials will go a long way toward persuading a three-judge court to rule in favor of a population cap. Trial on that issue is set for Feb. 6.

"We think these documents will show that the overcrowding crisis is something the state can't handle," said Lori Rifkin, the attorney who argued this afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge John F. Moulds in Sacramento in favor of releasing the documents.

"They know it," Rifkin said, referring to state officials, "and their remedies won't fix it."

The state's attorneys argued during the one-hour hearing that the documents were covered under privileges governing attorney-client relationships and the deliberative process that goes into governmental decisions.

But Moulds disagreed, saying he had reviewed some of the documents and he was "substantially disturbed" by the state's claim of privilege.

Rifkin said the documents include e-mails, internal memos, financial documents, budget change proposals and other materials generated in the governor's office, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the finance department and the Department of Mental Health.

"These are documents they really didn't want to give us and will really be at the heart of the case," Rifkin said.

In court papers, Rifkin accused the administration of inappropriately claiming executive privilege in withholding the documents, some of which detail the state's progress under this year's $7.9 billion prison construction law, which administration officials have cited as their leading defense against a population cap.

If the three-judge court rules in favor of the plaintiffs and puts a cap on the state prison system, it could result in early releases for tens of thousands of lower-risk inmates. Lawyers defending Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the corrections department countered in court filings that the dispute stems from failure to agree on a "joint discovery plan." They also acknowledged disagreement over what the state described in court papers as the administration's "official information privilege."

According to the Attorney General's Office, the state has provided 70,000 pages of electronic and paper documents to the inmates rights' groups, retained a vendor who has billed it for 1,500 hours in compiling documents, and deployed more than 100 attorneys from two agencies and a private firm who have spent another 5,000 hours "reviewing and privileging documents in this matter."

Meeting the plaintiffs' requests would mean providing "two years' worth of discovery in approximately two months," a task that the state's filing described as "impossible."

Plaintiffs' attorneys argue that overcrowding hampers the state's ability to provide constitutionally adequate levels of mental health and medical care in the prisons. Federal judges have already ruled that the state is out of compliance on both issues. The three-judge court is to determine whether overcrowding is the key reason for the state's failure.

As of Nov. 28, there were 172,132 inmates being housed in prisons, fire camps and other facilities designed to hold about half that total.

At least two of the documents sought by the inmates rights' lawyers concern the state's progress on Assembly Bill 900, which promises to build space for 53,000 new prison and jail beds and tie many of them to new rehabilitation programs.

Two key corrections officials swore in state filings that "the implementation of AB 900 is an ongoing, dynamic process." According to the administration's lawyers, the documents' "ongoing" nature rendered them privileged. For more, see Friday's Bee.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Editorial: Too many of us in prisons
Prison overcrowding reflects tougher sentencing, often for victimless offenses, not more crime
An Orange County Register editorial

It was more than a year ago that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger looked at the 175,000 prisoners crammed into a state prison system built for half as many and proclaimed a state of emergency.

So far, this emergency has been addressed largely in terms of prison "supply" – more beds. As we have argued before in these pages, a truly comprehensive solution for California's prison overcrowding must focus also on reducing prison "demand": reducing the number of criminals by reforming sentences for those lawbreakers who don't threaten public safety. But lest our readers think these suggestions are unique, a research institute that works closely with corrections departments around the country conducted an analysis of the nation as a whole, and it found both the same problem and the same necessary solution.

California's jails hold one of every 200 Californians, at an annual cost to taxpayers that rivals that of the state's university system. But as the report issued last week by the JFA Institute demonstrates, this follows the pattern of the nation as a whole, which now warehouses 2.2 million prisoners at a cost of $100 billion a year: a tenfold increase from three decades ago. JFA Institute, based in Washington, D.C., works with various levels of government and philanthropic agencies to evaluate criminal-justice policies and design research-based policy solutions (

Who are these 2.2 million people? Among them are Elisa Kelly and George Robinson, sentenced to 27 months in prison for hosting a drinking party for their son's nine friends in their own home. There's Jessica Hall, sentenced to 24 months for throwing a cup of McDonald's coffee at a car that cut her off. And then there are the hundreds of thousands of people imprisoned for nonviolent drug crimes.

As these examples suggest, and the JFA report demonstrates with statistical evidence, the primary reason for overcrowded prisons is not an explosion of crime, but an explosion of prison sentences. Not only are these sentences many times the length of those for equivalent crimes in other industrialized nations, they are "significantly longer than they were in earlier periods in our penal history." The result is greater expense for less effect, as is testified by rates of recidivism and crime alike.

The JFA Institute argues that its recommendations would save the U.S. taxpayer $20 billion a year and, eventually, reduce prison rolls by half. Certainly, they represent the real reforms that California and America as a whole need: reducing sentences, eliminating the use of prison for parole violators, reducing parole and probation supervision periods and, most importantly, decriminalizing victimless crimes, particularly those related to drug use and abuse. 


Addicted to prisons
An inmate cap would force Sacramento find solutions to social problems other than throwing people behind bars.
By Jonathan Simon
August 1, 2007 

On july 23, two U.S. District Court judges ordered the convening of a three-judge panel to consider releasing prisoners from California's alarmingly overcrowded state prison system. The judges' move raises the possibility that a specific cap on the state's prison population will come into place within the next few weeks or months. Californians should welcome such a cap, not because it would solve the problems caused by our state's overuse of imprisonment but because it is likely to compel our paralyzed political branches to approach imprisonment more responsibly.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other political leaders disagree. They suggest that any such cap would put dangerous criminals back on the streets. They prefer to rely on recent legislation that would build more prisons and place more beds in existing prisons to reduce overcrowding. Yet their own projections suggest that any significant reductions in overcrowding, especially at the state's highest-security prisons, are years away.

The claim that a cap would place dangerous criminals on the streets raises the very question our politicians need to address: Who really needs to be in prison to keep the rest of us safe? The nearly 180,000 prisoners in California state prisons include thousands of inmates over 65 and tens of thousands who are there for parole violations that did not involve a new criminal offense. Many others are serving extended terms for property and drug crimes based on the state's three-strikes law and other sentencing-enhancement measures adopted during nearly three decades of unrestrained politicization of punishment in California.

Today, California imprisons its residents at more than four times the level it did in 1980. Criminologists differ over whether this increase has helped reduce serious crime, or by how much, but virtually no qualified observer believes that the current readiness to use prison is the best way to protect Californians.

The massive prison system also strains our state's ability to fund proven strategies for reducing crime, such as community policing, drug treatment and long-term care for the mentally ill. Other pressing problems in education and healthcare will never be addressed as long as our imprisonment habit continues unabated.

Even if we ignore these other state needs, prison construction alone cannot produce the safe and humane conditions behind bars that the U.S. Constitution requires. We have built more than 30 prisons since 1980, but our inmate population is nearly twice the design capacity of those prisons. Our correctional officer force is dangerously understaffed, creating real risks of violence to inmates and officers. This is happening despite overall reductions in crime in recent years. Our laws are simply too indiscriminate about who gets sent to prison and for how long.

The real problem lies not in our prisons but in our Legislature and our courthouses. Since the determinate sentencing law, which created fixed prison terms, came into effect in 1977, legislators have found that the easiest bills to get passed and signed are measures that lengthen prison sentences. The resulting laws give prosecutors extraordinary power to send local offenders to state prison without accountability for the costs of the resulting overcrowding.

To his considerable credit, Schwarzenegger has done more than any governor in recent decades to acknowledge and address this chronic structural problem. The governor is on target with his frank criticism of the existing strategy of "warehousing" offenders who only come back to their communities more dangerous, and his sense that we should keep more offenders at the local level in jails and reentry facilities is consistent with what criminologists have long believed.

But these moves do not stem the immediate emergency or address the long-term problem. Schwarzenegger has begun to show the way and has pandered to voter fears far less then his recent predecessors, but he should go further. The prospect of federal court-ordered prisoner release pushes the state to make the administrative decisions necessary to bring down the prison population. The governor should order the early release of nonviolent parole violators and require parole officials to review whether community-based measures can address the risks posed by future technical violators. Special legislation to allow early release of nonviolent offenders who are within a few months of completing their sentences also should be considered.

Even these measures will not be enough to free the state from its chronic overuse of prison. To do this, the governor must come before the people and speak the truth about our penal code with his trademark frankness. These are laws written by and for "girlie men." We must learn to address serious social problems, like drug addiction, homelessness and threatening gang behavior, without indiscriminate recourse to prison. The governor should appoint a sentencing commission staffed with independent experts on crime and law enforcement to overhaul sentencing laws, with a mandate to reduce our reliance on prisons.

Some offenders pose a real danger of violence that requires the total preventive control of imprisonment. Others have committed such serious crimes that the harsh punishment of prison is called for. But as a state, we have stopped asking who does and does not belong in these categories. The prison cap is not the answer, but the impending threat of a cap is the only incentive that can break the paralysis in Sacramento that has packed our prison system and hobbled our ability to build a better future for Californians.

Jonathan Simon, a professor of law and associate dean at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, is the author of "Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear." 

Judges order steps to limit inmates 
By Brandon Bailey
and Steve HarmonMediaNews Sacramento Bureau
Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News

Article Launched:07/24/2007 07:47:01 AM PDT 

Frustrated with California's failure to ease overcrowding in its jam-packed prisons, a pair of federal judges took the unprecedented step Monday of ordering a special panel to consider capping the inmate population - or even ordering early release of some prisoners. 

The prospect of early releases drew howls of outrage from politicians and public safety advocates. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has already seen the courts take control of some prison programs, promised to appeal the rulings while he implements a package of prison expansion and reform measures he developed with state lawmakers earlier this year.

State officials and a leading prison-rights attorney, meanwhile, expressed hope that both sides can reach agreement on new reforms before the federal panel takes any drastic steps.

Such reforms - if they are to satisfy the judges - would most likely have to reduce the number of people in prison by making significant changes in the justice system such as new parole or sentencing policies.

The two judges ruled Monday in separate but related cases. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento is presiding over a long-running class-action suit that argues inmates are receiving dismal mental health care. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco is reviewing a similar case regarding medical care. Both judges said they decided to establish the special panel because California has repeatedly failed to provide adequate care for its prisoners. 

"That failure appears to be directly attributable to overcrowding," Karlton wrote.

The state spends more than $1 billion a year on a system that now houses more than 172,000 inmates in a network of prisons originally designed to hold around 100,000.

"There is no doubt that prisons in California are seriously and dangerously overcrowded," Karlton continued, adding that, "some form of limitation on the inmate population must be considered."

At the request of inmates' attorneys, Karlton and Henderson agreed to invoke a 1996 federal law that sets a procedure for federal courts to impose limits on state or local inmate populations.

Concerns about outcome

Under the law, which is intended to keep any single judge from having too much power over a prison system, the chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals must now appoint a panel of three judges to consider whether to cap the population - either by ordering early releases or by other means.

The law has been invoked in other states, but never on a scale as large as California's sprawling prison system. What comes next will be watched closely by legal experts and prison officials around the nation.

The prospect of judges making such basic decisions about the operation of state prisons left many of the state's political leaders voicing dismay.

A leading Democratic legislator called the rulings "unwelcome" but also blamed the Republican governor for allowing things to get to this stage.

Rather than appealing the decision, Schwarzenegger should put a new priority on reforming sentencing and parole standards, said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee.

"This is an opportunity for us to strip away the hysteria," she said, "and deal with public safety rationally."

Republicans meanwhile assailed the rulings as irresponsible and extreme, saying they could lead to the release of violent criminals.

That places "the safety and security of every Californian at risk," said Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines, R-Fresno, "and paves the way for the early release of thousands of dangerous criminals into neighborhoods across the state."

Both Karlton and Henderson, who previously ordered a receiver to take over the prison medical system, said they were acting in frustration over California's failure to provide basic humane treatment for inmates.

Referring to state officials, Henderson cited "five years of complete and utter failure by the defendants to cure the constitutional deficiencies in their delivery of medical health care to prisoners."

State actions

While the judges are clearly frustrated, inmates' attorney Michael Bien said he believes the state can head off the panel by implementing a series of recommendations from a group of experts that recently studied the problem.

As an example, the experts urged the state to provide more support for parolees and alternative programs for those who commit minor violations, rather than sending them back to prison in every case. Thousands of people are returned to state prisons every year under these circumstances, Bien said, although state officials say they already have modified its policy on some technical violations.

Administration officials, while not commenting on specifics, indicated they hope to convince the courts that a series of new measures will ease the overcrowding crisis - including the creation of several thousand new beds, transferring some prisoners to out-of-state facilities and developing new criteria for handling parole violators.

"I'm confident that the steps the state has taken and will continue taking to reduce overcrowding will meet the court's concerns," Schwarzenegger said in a written statement. "At the same time, we intend to appeal these orders to ensure that dangerous criminals are not released into our communities."

But the issue may be a matter of timing. In their rulings Monday, the two judges expressed doubt that the administration can enact its plans soon enough to make a difference in current prison conditions.

"All federal courts would prefer that the states take measures on their own, rather than being forced to do them," Bien said. "The question is when is the administration ever going to act."

Contact Brandon Bailey at  or (408) 920-5022.


Early release of some state prisoners possible 
Suggestion, made by two federal judges to ease chronic inmate overcrowding, draws strong protest

By Brandon Bailey

and Steven Harmon

MediaNews Sacramento Bureau
Contra Costa Times

Article Launched:07/24/2007 03:02:52 AM PDT 

SACRAMENTO -- Frustrated with California's failure to ease overcrowding in its jam-packed prisons, a pair of federal judges took the unprecedented step Monday of ordering a special panel to consider capping the inmate population -- or even ordering early release of some prisoners.

The prospect of early releases drew howls of outrage from politicians and public safety advocates. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has already seen the courts take control of some prison programs, promised to appeal the rulings while he implements a package of prison expansion and reform measures he developed with state lawmakers earlier this year.

State officials and a leading prison-rights attorney, meanwhile, expressed hope that both sides can reach agreement on new reforms before the federal panel takes any drastic steps.

Such reforms, if they are to satisfy the judges, would likely have to reduce the number of people in prison by making significant changes in the justice system such as new parole or sentencing policies.

The two judges ruled Monday in separate but related cases. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento is presiding over a long-running class-action lawsuit that argues inmates are receiving dismal mental health care. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco is reviewing a similar case regarding medical care. Both judges said they decided to establish the special panel because California has repeatedly failed to provide adequate care for its prisoners.

"That failure appears to be directly attributable to overcrowding," Karlton wrote.

The state spends more than $1 billion a year on a system that houses more than 172,000 inmates in a network of prisons originally designed to hold around 100,000.

"There is no doubt that prisons in California are seriously and dangerously overcrowded," Karlton continued, adding that, "some form of limitation on the inmate population must be considered."

At the request of inmates' attorneys, Karlton and Henderson agreed to invoke a 1996 federal law that sets a procedure for federal courts to impose limits on state or local inmate populations.

Under the law, which is intended to keep any single judge from having too much power over a prison system, the chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals must now appoint a panel of three judges to consider whether to cap the population -- either by ordering early releases or by other means.

The law has been invoked in other states but never on a scale as large as California's sprawling prison system. What comes next will be watched closely by legal experts and prison officials around the nation.

And the prospect of judges making such basic decisions about the operation of state prisons left many of the state's political leaders voicing dismay.

A leading Democratic legislator called the rulings "unwelcome" but also blamed the Republican governor for allowing things to get to this stage.

Rather than appealing the decision, Schwarzenegger should put a new priority on reforming sentencing and parole standards, said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who leads the Senate Public Safety Committee.

"This is an opportunity for us to strip away the hysteria," she said, "and deal with public safety rationally."

Republicans, meanwhile, assailed the rulings as irresponsible and extreme, saying they could lead to the release of violent criminals.

That places "the safety and security of every Californian at risk," said Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines, R-Fresno, "and paves the way for the early release of thousands of dangerous criminals into neighborhoods across the state."

Both Karlton and Henderson, who previously ordered a receiver to take over the prison medical system, said they were acting in frustration over California's failure to provide basic humane treatment for inmates.

Referring to state officials, Henderson cited "five years of complete and utter failure by the defendants to cure the constitutional deficiencies in their delivery of medical health care to prisoners."

Although the judges are clearly frustrated, inmates' attorney Michael Bien said he believes the state can head off the panel by implementing a series of recommendations from a group of experts that recently studied the problem.

As an example, the experts urged the state to provide more support for parolees and alternative programs for those who commit minor violations, rather than sending them back to prison in every case. Thousands of people are returned to state prisons every year under these circumstances, Bien said, although state officials say they already have modified California's policy on some technical violations.

Administration officials, while not commenting on specifics, indicated they hope to convince the courts that a series of new measures will ease the overcrowding crisis -- including the creation of several thousand new beds, transferring some prisoners to out-of-state facilities, and developing new criteria for handling parole violators.

"I'm confident that the steps the state has taken and will continue taking to reduce overcrowding will meet the court's concerns," Schwarzenegger said in a written statement. "At the same time, we intend to appeal these orders to ensure that dangerous criminals are not released into our communities."

But the issue may be a matter of timing. In their rulings on Monday, the two judges expressed doubt that the administration can enact its plans soon enough to make a difference in current prison conditions.

"All federal courts would prefer that the states take measures on their own, rather than being forced to do them," Bien said. "The question is when is the administration ever going to act."

Reach Brandon Bailey at  or 408-920-5022.

Posted on Mon, Jul. 23, 2007 
Judges order panel to examine California prison overcrowding

Two federal judges on Monday ordered creation of a special panel to recommend ways to relieve California's overcrowded prisons, a move that could lead to the capping of the inmate population or the early release of some prisoners.

In doing so, the judges rejected the main solution set forth by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers to address a crisis that has been building for decades. Last spring, they agreed to an ambitious $7.8 billion program to build 53,000 new prison and jail cells.

The judges said that plan, submitted to the courts in June, will only make matters worse for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The state can't hire enough guards and medical professionals to provide proper care and oversight for the inmates it has now, let alone the thousands more who might be added through the building program.

"From all that presently appears, new beds will not alleviate this problem but will aggravate it," U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento wrote.

Schwarzenegger said he will appeal the judges' decision to create the three-judge panel.

"I'm confident that the steps the state has taken and will continue taking to reduce overcrowding will meet the court's concerns," he said in a statement. "At the same time, we intend to appeal these orders to ensure that dangerous criminals are not released into our communities."

The appeal process could take years. Meanwhile, the administration will press ahead with the building program and its emergency order from last October to transfer 8,000 inmates to prisons in other states.

Karlton and U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco issued simultaneous opinions Monday after holding a joint hearing on the matter in June. They said the state's prison system has grown so large that conditions make it impossible to provide acceptable medical and mental health care to inmates.

While that will require some limit to the inmate population, Henderson said he hoped state officials take further actions on their own without a federal court order capping the population.

"This court would like nothing more than to have the three-judge court be able to enter a consent judgment without the need for a prisoner release order," Henderson wrote in his opinion. He acknowledged that releasing inmates early would be "a radical step, particularly given the size of California's prison system."

State lawmakers who support the prison building plan as the best way to relieve overcrowding reacted skeptically.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, chairman of an Assembly committee on prisons, said placing a cap on the number of inmates will necessarily lead to some felons being released early.

"With this ruling, it is inevitable that federal judges will release thousands of prisoners back into our neighborhoods," Spitzer, R-Orange, said in a statement. "If the federal court does not believe we are meeting its standards, the Legislature has no other option but to intervene in court to argue that releasing felons will be putting the public at risk."

The decision to order the three-judge panel's creation goes to the chief judge of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who will make the appointments. Schwarzenegger's appeal of Monday's decision will go to the same court.

Federal court oversight of state prisons and county jails was common during the 1970s and 1980s. California, however, would be the first state to have its prison operations reviewed under a federal law that took effect in 1996. That law established three-judge panels so that individual judges could not order the early release of inmates.

The judges became involved in California's prison system after years of lawsuits filed by inmate advocacy groups.

Those lawsuits have left many operations of the nation's largest state prison system under the authority of state and federal courts, including inmate health care, mental health services, care of disabled inmates and employee discipline. The out-of-state inmate transfers and building program were designed to avoid a larger federal takeover of the prisons. Beyond an inmate cap or prisoner release, the state might be forced to reform its sentencing laws, parole guidelines and prisoner rehabilitation efforts so fewer parolees return to prison.

"We're in uncharted waters," said Michael Bien, an attorney who represents inmates and sought creation of the panel. "We think there's tremendous urgency. Yet the three-judge panel must take its job very seriously and hear evidence and not act rashly."

In ordering the special panel, the federal judges recognized that the construction plan approved this spring would only create a larger, more crowded system, rather than giving relief, said Don Specter, director of the San Francisco-based Prison Law Office.

"It was the only step to get a handle on the crisis that the governor recognized last October," he said.

A third federal judge hearing a lawsuit in Oakland over the plight of disabled inmates also is considering creating a special judicial panel. But she deferred a decision until the ruling by Karlton and Henderson.

Those two judges favor just a single three-judge panel, rather than individual ones, to handle all the pending class-action lawsuits.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007
The Orange Grove: Give prison building bill time to work
Judges should not cap the system's population, which would free criminals.

Spitzer, R-Orange, chairs the Assembly Select Committee on Prison Construction and Operations
Recently, two federal judges held a hearing in Sacramento to consider whether to impose a cap on the population of California's prison system to reduce overcrowding. If imposed, such a cap would result in the state being prohibited from accepting new prisoners and forced to release inmates before they have fully paid their debt to society. 

As chairman of the Assembly Select Committee on Prison Construction and Operations, I believe a prison population cap is simply uncalled for and dangerous. This course is unnecessary because lawmakers worked together to pass Assembly Bill 900, a bipartisan prison reform measure that contains realistic and workable solutions to our state's prison challenges. 

[Editor's note: The bill allocates $7.9 billion, mostly in bond funding, to expand the prison system's capacity by 53,000 beds.]

One thing is clear – if the federal courts go forward in imposing a population cap, California faces the real prospect of having tens of thousands of serious and repeat criminals being released into our communities. 

The experiences other states have had when a prison population cap was imposed suggests many dangerous felons could be out on the streets and back to their old criminal ways if tough-on-crime, public safety laws are undermined by the courts.

Texas experienced overcrowding during the 1960s and 1970s, and a federal judge ordered the early release of inmates. One prisoner released was Kenneth McDuff, who was originally sentenced to death for murdering three teenagers, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Upon his release, McDuff raped and murdered 12 women before he was arrested and sentenced again to death.

The city of Philadelphia also experienced overcrowding during the 1980s and 1990s, and a federal judge imposed a population cap similar to what is being considered in California. During one 18-month period, over 9,700 freed criminals were arrested again on new charges, including 79 murders, 90 rapes and 1,113 assaults.

This is what we could have in store for us if the federal judges impose a population cap.

Originally, proponents of a cap contended that they were pushing only for the release of inmates who are "nonviolent" offenders, arguing that prisons are overcrowded because too many inmates are serving time for low-level offences or as a result of mandatory sentencing laws. They contend such convicts pose no danger to society and should be released to free up space. But the crime for which inmates are currently serving time does not tell the full story about their past, and may understate their criminal history. 

Make no mistake – when we talk about "nonviolent offenders," we are not talking about those convicted of traffic violations, but rather criminals convicted of serious crimes like burglary and identity theft.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the cases of sex offenders. While an estimated 14,000 inmates are serving time for sex offenses, more than 21,000 inmates would be required to register as sex offenders if they were released into the community. This means that 7,000 sex offenders are currently locked up for lesser offenses and could be eligible for release under a population cap. 

If the federal judges rule in favor of a population cap, however, we could see both "nonviolent" and hard-core criminals released. Some estimates calculate that 35,000-60,000 prisoners could be released into our communities as a result of such a cap. 

Lawmakers have acted responsibly to address California's prison challenges by passing the bipartisan reform legislation, AB900. We crafted comprehensive and focused solutions that will enable us to build the expanded prison capacity to reduce overcrowding and improve prison rehabilitation programs. AB900 represents the workable solutions required to effectively address our prison challenges. 

It is irresponsible for the federal courts to consider a misguided prison population cap before our reforms have even had a chance to work. I will continue to work with my colleagues to show the courts that we are making progress in addressing our prison challenges, and a population cap is not only unnecessary, it's irresponsible.

Federal judges announce joint hearing on prison cap bids

By Julia Cheever 

June 6, 2007

Two federal judges in San Francisco and Sacramento announced today they will hold an unusual joint hearing June 27 in connection with legal bids for a cap on the population in California's overcrowded prisons.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento will hear arguments on whether they should convene a special three-judge panel to decide whether to impose a cap. 

The joint hearing, which will take place in Sacramento, was announced in an order issued by Henderson today. 

Under a federal law governing prison lawsuits, an order limiting prison population in a constitutional case can be made only by a panel made up of two federal district judges and one U.S. appeals court judge.

Henderson and Karlton are both presiding over lawsuits in which lawyers representing inmates have asked for such an order. Attorneys for the prisoners have argued that reducing the number of inmates is the only way of alleviating what they describe as "horrific" and unconstitutional deficiencies in medical care.

The lawsuit before Henderson concerns general medical care and the case before Karlton concerns mentally ill prisoners.

Last year, Henderson, after finding that prison medical care was "abysmal," appointed a receiver to take over the state's prison health care system. 

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland is presiding over a third case concerning disabled inmates. Lawyers in that case have also asked for a three-judge panel.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he hopes a recently announced prison expansion and improvement proposal will help to solve dangerous overcrowding.

But Donald Specter, a lawyer representing prisoners in all three lawsuits, said today the expansion plans don't solve the problem because they increase the demand without increasing health care services. 

Henderson and Karlton said in the order, "We conclude that the interests of judicial economy weigh in favor of a joint hearing in this matter."


Court to consider capping prisons
Inmates' lawyers suggest a figure that could mean early releases for 35,000.
By Andy Furillo - Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 12:00 am PDT Monday, May 28, 2007

With federal judges lining up to consider a population cap for California prisons, inmate rights lawyers have thrown out a number for the courts to take under consideration: 137,764.

According to the attorneys' citations in a legal filing last week, that figure is the "maximum safe and reasonable capacity" for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

With the system stuffed with 172,719 inmates as of May 16, the "maximum safe and reasonable" number in the existing 33 prisons is suggesting a prisoner release order totaling close to 35,000.

The attorneys got the figure from the "Reforming Corrections" report of July 2004 that was written by the Corrections Independent Review Panel, put together by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and chaired by a law-and-order-minded former governor, George Deukmejian.

Inmate rights lawyer Michael W. Bien said the plaintiffs aren't exactly calling for an early release order on the magnitude of 35,000 convicts.

But he said it's a figure that federal judges should keep in mind when hearings on population caps begin next week.

"It's the only number we've seen that reflects the thinking of a group of people who have analyzed the problem, who have spoken with wardens and CDC officials, who have looked at the construction plans and who have the inside information," Bien said in an interview. "And that's the number they came up with."

Bien said the plaintiffs "introduced that number to the court because it's part of the public record. It was the product of a commission created by this governor for the purpose of advising him about this very issue. This was not done by a bunch of wild-eyed liberals."

No matter where the figure came from, the Schwarzenegger administration isn't giving it serious consideration.

"We don't believe we should be putting felons back on the streets of California before their time," Corrections Secretary Jim Tilton said in an interview. "So we're absolutely not supportive of that."

The Sacramento federal court hearing set for June 5 will come in the class-action case covering 32,000 California prison inmates diagnosed with mental illness. The second hearing, scheduled for June 7 in Oakland, involves inmates with disability access issues. The third, covering inmate medical care, will take place June 11 in San Francisco.

Inmate lawyers are arguing that prisoner overcrowding has exacerbated unconstitutional conditions that gave rise to each of the cases. All three were settled in favor of the plaintiffs. In legal motions, the inmate rights attorneys are asking the courts to establish three-judge panels under the terms of the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act that would consider prison population limits, possibly leading to early release orders.

As for the 35,000 figure that Bien suggested, California Correctional Peace Officers Association spokesman Lance Corcoran said early releases of that order would leave public safety "seriously jeopardized."

"I think you wouldn't necessarily see a crime wave, but at least some from that group would commit a heinous crime, and there would be a reaction from the public similar to 'three strikes,' " Corcoran said, recalling the career criminal initiative resulting from the slaying of Polly Klaas in Sonoma County. "And it would exacerbate the existing (overcrowding) problem."

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, said that the recently enacted $7.9 billion prison expansion and rehabilitation bill contains enough short- and long-term fixes on overcrowding to forestall talk about early releases.

"I think there's a substantial argument that everybody in prison today is there for a reason," Spitzer said.

In a recent presentation in Sacramento, however, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency reported that there is evidence that early inmate releases can actually lead to decreases in crime.

The group's president, Barry Krisberg, said that declines in crime took place only if the early releases were accompanied by assessments that made sure the offenders being released were nonviolent. In addition, corrections officials also had to ensure that the inmates benefitting from early releases were placed in job, drug treatment, housing, mental health or other programs.

In papers filed Thursday, Bien wrote that the only way the state can comply with the settlement in the so-called Coleman mental health case is "through an order limiting the overall prison population."

Too many inmates, he said, have stalled the state's progress on improving staffing ratios, providing adequate treatment space and cutting an inmate suicide rate that is twice the national average.

Through April, 16 California inmates had taken their own lives this year, compared with 14 for the same time period last year, according to the plaintiffs' court papers. At least 12 of this year's suicides were committed by inmates classified as mentally ill and covered in the class-action case.

"Only by limiting the population can the state remedy the constitutional violations by recruiting and obtaining sufficient clinical staff to address the needs of the class," the plaintiffs' court papers said. "Without population limits, defendants can never catch up."

The plaintiffs characterized the state's recently enacted prison plan as "yet another prison building boom" that won't provide any new housing space until 2009 at the earliest.

The plan, contained in Assembly Bill 900, "is itself an illusion," the plaintiffs argued, with no guarantees that the prison system can finish the construction on time or fill the thousands of staff vacancies needed to make the promise of rehabilitation work.

Attorneys for the state, in papers filed Thursday in the mental health case, argued that AB 900 will provide enough bed space over time to resolve the overcrowding problem. They say that the out-of-state inmate transfers they hope to resume next month will provide short-term relief. The state's lawyers also cited a new emphasis on enforcing existing laws that allow for early parole discharges.

The state's lawyers said in their court papers that AB 900 "will provide more comprehensive reform than any prison cap ever could." They argued that the state is complying with court orders in the Coleman case, that it has increased pay for clinicians and is building more treatment space for mentally ill inmates.

Moreover, the lawyers argued, there is no assurance that a lower population would improve mental health care in the prisons.

"Defendants are already making great progress to address prison overcrowding and to provide constitutional mental health care to inmates," wrote Deputy Attorney General Lisa Tillman, who declined to be interviewed.

"A prison population-cap order could not provide the comprehensive reform that the defendants are already implementing."

Monday, April 16, 2007
The Orange Grove: Make way for the prison inmates
Liberal lawmakers' inaction figures to have thousands of felons released
Spitzer, R-Orange, represents the 71st Assembly District and chairs the Assembly Select Committee on Prison Construction and Operation

Amid bills about light bulbs, spanking, animal neutering and the countless other "Nanny State" issues being debated in the state Capitol, a terrifying deadline is looming. May 16, 2007.

On this date, a month from today, a federal judge very well may release 50,000 violent felons from our state's bloated prisons and back into our neighborhoods. And if this happens, Sacramento, and liberal legislators in particular, will be to blame.

The judge has given the Legislature until May 16 to develop a plan to alleviate California's overcrowded prisons, a plan the judge must find reasonable and acceptable.

Republicans have said they will support a plan that includes adding prison beds and proposals to make inmates more successful at re-entering society. Liberals have offered only a proposed sentencing commission to take away power from voters and the Legislature in setting appropriate punishment for future offenders.

For months, my Republican colleagues and I have attempted to spur the Legislature into action. We've toured eight prisons across the state. We've spoken out on the Assembly floor about the crisis. We've even instituted the "Countdown to Community Chaos," marking the time remaining until the May 16 deadline. Our actions have been an exercise in futility.

Liberals also know our prisons are dangerously overcrowded. They know that the violence is spilling back onto our streets. They know gang members, many of whom should be in county jails but have been released early because of overcrowding, are indiscriminately gunning down children in the streets. They know that Los Angeles' recent drug and gang raids are all for show there's simply no place to incarcerate these dangerous felons.

They know all of this, and yet they've done nothing. 

Arguably, the county that stands to lose the most from early release of inmates is Los Angeles. Approximately one-third of all state prison inmates come from Los Angeles, so about one-third of the estimated 50,000 inmates projected for early release would be bound for L.A. More than 3,000 inmates figure to come home to Orange County.

Logically, one would assume that Los Angeles would be up in arms; that the mayor, council members and county supervisors would be storming the Capitol, demanding the Legislature get its act together. After all, when Los Angeles felt shortchanged in highway-construction bond money, officials capitulated and gave them $1.3 billion. But when Los Angeles faces re-absorbing approximately 16,000 felons, what do we hear in Sacramento? Nothing.

So what are we to do? First and most obviously, we must build more beds within our existing prisons. But that will not solve the greater problem. California has one of the worst recidivism rates in the nation; we must do more than just house and release offenders. We should maximize the now-idle time inmates spend in prison to ensure they earn a GED or vocational training so that they can attempt to be successful upon release. Inmates should not receive any "good-time/work-time" credits until they achieve these goals. 

We also must welcome the clergy into our prisons; faith can produce life-changing results.

In addition, the governor has proposed a re-entry program where prisoners would serve the final 12-18 months of their sentences in county jails, where the soon-to-be-released inmates can learn about available services, which also could help reduce recidivism.

Whether we think they should be, inmates are being released onto our streets and into our neighborhoods. Allowing them to cycle in and out of prison only leads to more victims, more crime, more damaged lives. The solution is much more complex than simply opening the prison gates and letting felons walk out.

How many more prison riots must we have? How many more gang-related drive-by shootings will liberals tolerate in their own districts? How many felons will be released early back into our neighborhoods before liberals realize that their complacency has endangered their own children's lives? 

On May 16, these questions will no longer be rhetorical. And we will know exactly who to blame.

Hold placed on bills that might swell prisons
By Judy Lin - Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 12:00 am PDT Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Saying they don't want to make a bad situation worse, Senate Democratic leaders on Tuesday imposed a nine-month moratorium on all bills that they said would aggravate California's overcrowded prison population.

Sen. Gloria Romero, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, has placed a hold on any legislation that imposes new crimes or lengthens criminal sentences while the state grapples with a prison population about twice the designed capacity.

Under the new policy, staff estimated that dozens of Senate bills and more from the Assembly will not be taken up until January.

Romero, D-Los Angeles, said she wants to show judges considering imposing a prison population cap that the Legislature isn't overburdening a system that's already struggling to find beds for 172,000 inmates. Last year, the federal court appointed a receiver to take over health care services at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"We would be going forth in the dark if we continue to let bills fly out of committee," Romero said. "This is public safety, and we all want to be tough on crime. But how tough do we look when our own system is rendered unconstitutional? And how tough do we look when our jails and prisons may at some point have to open to let out individuals?"

Romero's move immediately drew harsh criticism from Republicans who are pushing to build more prisons. They accused Romero of sending the wrong message to criminals.

Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, said the move tells criminals they should "continue to spread gang crime; continue to plague our communities with meth; continue to sexually prey on our children."

Already the moratorium is affecting the number of bills clearing the Senate committee. Five of the seven bills heard in committee Tuesday were affected by the new policy, known as the Receivership/Overcrowding Crisis Aggravation factor, or ROCA.

One of the bills held was written by Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Temecula. His Senate Bill 479 seeks to add five years in prison for anyone who impersonates a law enforcement officer during the course of a kidnapping or sexual assault.

"I think the public should be very concerned that those who control this Legislature want to have criminals out roaming the streets," Hollingsworth said.

It is already against the law to impersonate a police officer. Such convictions carry a maximum of three years in prison.

Romero said bills that seek to reduce prison population will not be affected.


Governor says only judicial threat will push Capitol into prison action
By Andy Furillo - Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 4:10 pm PST Tuesday, March 6, 2007

NORCO - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday that he welcomes the threat of a federal judge imposing a prison population cap in California and that the strong prospect of the courts ordering early inmate releases might be the only thing that can trigger action by an ideologically-burdened Legislature.

"I like the idea of a federal judge threatening us, because this is the only way that in our Capitol there will be action created," Schwarzenegger said in a brief interview after a short tour he had just completed at a prison in the heart of the Southern California media market. "Because for 10 years now, before I came in, they've been fighting about the same problem. They haven't built anything in a decade, but we've seen this increase in inmates. So something is going to happen because of the judge telling us that he's going to take action if we don't."

Schwarzenegger's comments came in the midst of a week he is dedicating to selling a $10.9 billion prison constructon and sentencing and parole overhaul, to both the Legislature and the public. His trip Tuesday to the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco attracted a bevy of media and followed a tough-on-crime press conference he held Monday with Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.

Tuesday night, he was scheduled to meet with Republican legislators, a group that thus far has exhibited a noticeably chilled reaction to the softer side of Schwarzenegger's prison plan. It includes a proposal that would qualify lower-level offenders for direct discharge from parole upon their release from prison. The governor also is calling for the creation of a sentencing commission that Republicans think is the state's first step toward letting criminals out of prison before their terms are up.

The governor said in the interview that his corrections fix holds plenty of goodies for Republicans, mainly billions of dollars to expand prison, jail and juvenile detention space that would accommodate tens of thousands of offenders of all ages at the state and local levels. As for the Democrats, Schwarzenegger said he envisions a deal that would open the door for pet changes they want to see in parole and sentencing.

"All of that can be worked out as long as we understand all that is on the table," Schwarznegger said. "Especially knowing that a federal judge is breathing on our neck and that they're going to release a certain amount of inmates."

Republican Assemblyman Todd Spitzer of Orange toured the Norco prison with Schwarzenegger. He said he is hoping to convince Republicans to ramp up the pressure on Democrats to go along with a prison construction plan by putting the spotlight on violent crime that is occuring in the rival parties' legislative districts.

"We're going to take it to the streets," Spitzer said.

On the Democratic side, Schwarzenegger said that Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland has told him that "we can look at (prison construction) in a serious way" and that his party is "serious about creating new facilities."

Perata spokeswoman Alicia Trost said the Democrats "haven't taken anything off the table" when it comes to Schwarzenegger's corrections proposals.

"We're interested in solving the problem," she said.

A meeting between the governor and legislative leaders is scheduled for Monday, Trost said.

U.S. District Court Judges Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento and Thelton Henderson in San Francisco have both scheduled June hearings as first steps toward imposing inmate population caps. Both judges have suggested they are ready to act in absence of any action by the state to do something about its hugely overcrowded prisons, where some 172,000 inmates in California's 33 prisons and attendant camps and community facilities are now living in space designed for half that many.

On Tuesday, Schwarzenegger spent about an hour at the Riverside County prison, where 4,550 inmates are living in one of the most dilapidated facilities in the state, and one that was meant to contain only 2,315 offenders.

Just about every dorm in the "CRC" prison in Norco needs to be knocked down and replaced with more modern housing, Chief Deputy Warden Matthew Martell said in an interview. The main part of the institution dates back to the early 20th Century as a resort hotel for the rich and famous. It was converted into a naval hospital in the early 1940s before the prison system took the place over and started moving in convicted criminals some 40 years ago.

Some of the wooden barracks the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation built for the prisoners have gotten so bad that water rot has caused the bathrooms to literally decay within them.

"That's what goes first," Martell said.

The state has appropriated $70 million to build two new dorms at CRC, according to Martell. Sixteen more are needed, he said, with no money yet in the pipeline to get the job done. The replacement costs are not included in Schwarzenegger's prison expansion plan.

In his tour Tuesday, the governor met briefly with Norco warden Guillermina Hall and toured a gymnasium that had been converted to a double-bunked dormitory. The gym was empty of inmates when Schwarzenegger passed through. He told reporters at a press conference afterward that he is "seeing first-hand what is going on here," with the overcrowding situation forcing prison officials to convert into a bunk room space that otherwise would be reserved for inmate programs.

"It is dangerous for the inmate and it is dangerous for staff," he said. "That's what we want to avoid. There is no room for rehabilitation in those facilities...If we had more beds available and more space available, we could do a much, much better job of rehabilitation."

Schwarzenegger's staff said he is considering the possibility of another prison visit later in the week.

Schwarzenegger vows quick prison fix to relieve overcrowding
By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer

Thursday, February 22, 2007

(02-22) 19:09 PST SACRAMENTO, (AP) -- 

Facing a looming deadline and dwindling options, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders said Thursday they will consider letting some inmates out of prison early to avoid court-ordered early releases.

The governor told reporters during an afternoon news conference that one option could be freeing nonviolent offenders. Soon afterward, his press office issued a statement modifying Schwarzenegger's comments.

In the written statement, Schwarzenegger said he would not rule out "the potential release of the old, feeble and sick who pose no threat to the public. ... However, I will not allow the early release of any felons — violent or nonviolent — as a means to address overcrowding."

Schwarzenegger's news conference followed a meeting with the four legislative leaders that was driven by a renewed urgency to deal with severe overcrowding in California's 33 prisons.

"We made a commitment that everything is on the table, from building more prisons to creating a sentencing commission to parole reform," Schwarzenegger said during the news conference.

The overcrowding is the subject of three separate lawsuits filed in federal courts throughout Northern California. One of the judges has set a mid-May deadline for the state to produce a plan to deal with the crowding.

Two judges said they could seek the early release of inmates and cap the inmate population — thus keeping convicts in county jails — unless the state acted to solve the overcrowding. California's prisons were designed for 100,000 inmates but hold nearly twice that number.

Options for an immediate fix are few. Schwarzenegger has recommended an $11 billion prison and jail building program, as well as a review of sentencing guidelines, but both will take months if not years to have any effect.

In October, he ordered the transfer of thousands of inmates to private prisons in other states. But this week a state judged ruled the transfers were illegal, in part because they violated a state constitutional provision against contracting work to private companies. The state is appealing that decision.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, said options could include releasing "low-level offenders."

"We either wait for a judge to order the release of thousands of dangerous and violent offenders, or we can look at the release of a guy who got pulled over for a traffic offense," Nunez said in a telephone interview. "Either we figure out who is going to be released or a judge is going to decide it for us."

Assembly Minority Leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, said his caucus is willing to consider changing California's parole and sentencing laws but opposes releasing any inmates before they serve their full sentences.

GOP faults Democrats on prison overcrowding
Hearings delayed so courts will take over system, lawmakers charge
By Andy Furillo - Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 12:00 am PST Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Legislative Republicans accused Democrats on Monday of delaying action on prison construction in the hope that the federal courts will engage in "a complete takeover" of California's correctional system.

In a press conference outside Folsom State Prison, GOP members said they will fight for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid to add tens of thousands of new beds to the state and local correctional systems as the best way to solve the prisons' overcrowding emergency.

They said they would oppose any sentencing commission proposal that looks to them like it would result in early releases. They also decried court-ordered spending on prison health care as an "unaccountable" intrusion into legislative spending prerogatives.

Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines said his party sees an opening on the prison issue to make political inroads in a Legislature dominated in both houses by Democratic majorities. He said Republicans are "right where Californians want us to be" on prison issues in opposing early releases of inmates and supporting policies that keep "bad people" locked up.

"This is one issue that I think is incumbent on us to drive," Villines said in an interview. "If we don't drive this, nothing is going to happen."

With some 172,000 inmates in its custody, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is crowded to nearly twice its designed capacity.

Eight class-action lawsuits currently control a huge swath of the state prison system, with the entire adult medical delivery operation placed under the control of a federal court-appointed receiver. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento, meanwhile, has given the state until June 4 to solve its overcrowding problem or he will take steps to impose a population cap.

Todd Spitzer, a Republican Assemblyman from Orange and the co-chair of Schwarzenegger's select committee on high risk sex offenders, led the partisan attack on Democratic legislators. Spitzer said he was angry that Assembly Democrats failed to act on Schwarzenegger's prison construction plan during last year's special session and that there's been no movement by the Democratic leadership yet on the governor's pending construction plan. His $10.9 billion proposal would create space for 83,000 prison, jail and juvenile beds at the state and local levels.

"We absolutely believe unequivocally the reason we have had no hearings is because the Democrats want, are committed and are dedicated to a complete takeover by the federal courts of the operations of our prison system," Spitzer said, with the two dozen GOP members standing behind him before embarking on a tour of the prison.

Two Democratic proposals to create a state sentencing commission attracted a good chunk of the Republican heat Monday.

The commission as envisioned by the Democrats would gather data on state sentencing policies and propose guidelines that would regulate the inflow of inmates into the state system in the event of space shortages. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, also wants to form a commission for the immediate purpose of studying a direct discharge policy for as many as 24,000 lower-risk prison parolees.

The Democrats have strongly denied Republican charges that a sentencing commission would serve as a vehicle for early releases. Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, characterized the Republican press conference outside the prison Monday as "political posturing."

"The experts and those who have looked at sentencing commissions, including former Republican governors of our state, say it is something that is needed, that California may well be undersentencing some crimininals in addition to oversentencing others," said Lieber, who is the author of Assembly Bill 160, which would enact a sentencing commission.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, released a statement saying he was "disappointed" with what he called Republican "finger-pointing." Núñez added that Democrats are "not about to let the federal government take over our corrections system."

Schwarzenegger also put out a statement applauding the Republicans for supporting his proposals to build more prisons and jails. He added that he agrees with the GOP members "that we must do everything possible to prevent the early release of dangerous criminals."

Supreme Court to State: Fix Prison Problem
By DAVID KRAVETS, AP Legal Affairs Writer
Published: January 24, 2007 16:32 

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Monday striking down California’s criminal sentencing rules may be a blessing in disguise as the state grapples with severely overcrowded prison conditions. 

The high court’s ruling means about 10,000 of 173,000 inmates are eligible for reduced terms. 

The decision comes as federal courts in Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco are considering ordering a reduction to the number of prisoners who are being warehoused in what inmate advocates say are deplorable and unconstitutional conditions.

The state prison system is 70 percent over capacity, and Monday’s decision forces the hand of California government to re-examine its sentencing rules that are the strictest in the nation. Some inmates, under the three strikes law, are serving life terms for petty crimes, such as shoplifting. 

“It does raise the salience and importance of the way sentences are handed out and what those sentences are,” Attorney General Jerry Brown said of the justices’ ruling. “It certainly is calling attention to the issue of sentencing, and that might well move higher up on the legislative scale the priority of sentencing reform.” 

Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, said “this is a perfect opportunity to launch that discussion. For all intents and purposes, the Supreme Court is telling us we have to do it anyway.” 

Romero said the court’s decision puts more urgency for lawmakers to adopt a bill she proposed last week creating a sentencing commission to review sentences and make changes. 

The justices ruled 6-3 that judges usually cannot increase sentences based on factors not found true by a jury. 

The case concerned Richmond police officer John Cunningham who was sentenced to the maximum 16 years imprisonment for sexually abusing his son. State law instructs judges to sentence inmates to the middle of three options _ in this case, 12 years _ unless factors that did not go before the jury exist to justify a shorter or longer prison term. 

The justices said such a sentencing scheme violates defendants’ rights to be tried before a jury. 

Cunningham got the maximum because the sentencing judge said there were several aggravating circumstances to the crime, including the defendant threatening the victim to recant.

“This moves sentencing reform to the front burner in California,” said Gerald Uelmen, executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. 

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, said both legislative chambers should convene a conference committee “to deal with prison overcrowding.” 

Still, Spitzer said, a consensus isn’t likely as the decision has created “a perfect storm” for the “liberal agenda,” which he equated to taking no action. 

Failing to act makes it more likely the federal courts will order the release of prisoners, Spitzer said. “The liberal agenda in this capital is the early release of prisoners,” he said. 

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that won’t happen. 

“I support longer sentences for criminals who deserve them,” he said. “As governor, I will work to ensure that this decision will not be a threat to public safety.” 

The case is Cunningham v. California, 05-6551. 


Editors: David Kravets has been covering state and federal courts for more than a decade. 

Prisoners resist moving out of state
A film with the feel of an infomercial is a tool to ease crowding. Gangs give it a thumbs down.
By Jenifer Warren
Times Staff Writer

January 28, 2007

SACRAMENTO — Tasty meals! A room with a view! Ping-Pong! Cable TV!

In one of the more unusual marketing campaigns undertaken by state government, California prison officials are asking inmates to bid adieu to their cellmates and transfer to lockups elsewhere in the country.

As part of the recruitment drive, wardens are screening a film extolling the virtues of out-of-state prisons and reminding convicts of the violent, overcrowded, racially charged conditions they face in California.

"You get 79 channels here — ESPN!" one tattooed California felon, now housed in Tennessee, says in the movie.

"They talk to us like humans," says another, "not like animals."

The campaign reflects the desperation corrections officials face as they grapple with a ballooning prison population and no easy fix. Leaders say they will run out of room for new inmates by summer, and a federal judge has ordered the overcrowding eased by June.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has unveiled a sweeping $11.9-billion prison building and reform plan. But its prospects are uncertain in the Legislature, and creating bed space — whether through the construction of new cells or policy changes that slow the incoming tide of convicts — cannot be accomplished overnight.

The governor declared a state of emergency in October and announced plans to ship some inmates out of state.

So far, the transfers have been voluntary. But officials say mandatory moves are increasingly likely because so few convicts are willing to go.

In an initial survey, more than 19,000 felons said they might like a change of scenery. But now officials say they have only 600 volunteers on their list, including 365 who already have been shipped to Arizona and Tennessee. 

Some convicts have been disqualified to transfer because of medical or mental health problems or because they require a high level of security not offered in the out-of-state facilities that have agreed to take California prisoners.

But two other factors may be deflating interest, officials say.

Prison gangs, wary of losing troops and control behind bars, have reportedly warned inmates not to sign up.

And false but persistent rumors of possible early releases in California also may be deterring volunteers. Because of a pending lawsuit seeking to cap the inmate population, many convicts apparently believe that a judge may allow some to go free before the end of their terms — an opportunity they would miss if they were housed in another state.

"We know there are some intangible factors out there, like the gang allegiances, that are affecting our numbers," said Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "We're hoping that over time, those influences will wear down."

Critics of the transfer program said the department was foolish to undertake it, arguing that the number of beds freed by the moves would do little to ease crowding.

"The crowding of 173,000 inmates into space for about 100,000 is not solved by moving a few thousand to facilities in other states," said Bob Driscoll of Woodland Hills, the father of an inmate. He called the moves "a desperation measure to allow the governor to say, 'See, we're doing something about overcrowding,' even if it is just tokenism."

An executive with the prison guards union, which has sued to block the transfers on grounds that they violate the state Constitution, said the sluggish interest among convicts was predictable.

"Most of these inmates have some family or girlfriend or pen pal or other connection here, so the idea of transferring a long ways away, to the unknown, is not that attractive," said Lance Corcoran, a lobbyist with the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. "Not that the department hasn't tried. They've marketed these places like cruise ships."

Corcoran added that many out-of-state facilities operated by private companies have a checkered history, including violence and abuse, and that California convicts — the promotional tape notwithstanding — might be in for a rude surprise if they transferred.

Officials said the promotional film, which is being shown on the prisons' closed-circuit TV, was designed to demystify the transfers and convince inmates that the grass may be greener outside the Golden State.

The 20-minute movie depicts the entire relocation experience, including searches and shackling at the beginning, a charter flight and the arrival at a clean, quiet prison with polished floors.

Most compelling are testimonials from some of the 80 convicts who already have arrived at the West Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason, a private lockup run by Corrections Corp. of America.

In voluntary interviews, inmates praise their new surroundings, including the food, the staff, the recreation and the job and education opportunities.

Footage shows inmates lounging in roomy cells with views, playing basketball and chess, lining up for hot meals and chatting amiably with smiling officers.

Inmates of different races mingle — something unheard of on a California prison yard — and one convict marvels that "we've already had dental exams," which are hard to come by behind bars in the Golden State.

"It blew all of our minds," one inmate says of the Tennessee experience. "We didn't expect all this."

Whether such glowing reports will woo more volunteers on California's cellblocks remains to be seen.

Corrections Secretary James Tilton has said he hopes to transfer at least 5,000 inmates. Under contracts the state has already signed, incarcerating inmates out of state saves money: $63 a day is spent on each inmate compared with California's $71 a day.

In case more volunteers do not step forward, the governor's emergency proclamation lays the foundation for compulsory moves, which are sure to be controversial.

In his emergency decree, the governor authorizes suspension of a law requiring an inmate's consent for an out-of-state transfer.

He also orders that the first convicts moved against their will be noncitizens facing possible deportation upon completion of their terms.

Some lawmakers have voiced objections to mandatory moves. And inmate advocates said they would probably challenge the transfers in court.

Administration officials already are defending the voluntary program against three lawsuits, and at least one judge believes that the state is on shaky legal ground.

Responding to a lawsuit by the prison guards and a public employee union in late November, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian rejected a request that she block the transfers but said they might be illegal.

The unions argue that Schwarzenegger improperly used the Emergency Services Act in declaring an emergency inside state prisons, saying the law was reserved for natural disasters. They also say that the state Constitution prohibits the government from using private companies for jobs normally performed by state employees.

Ohanesian said the plaintiffs were "reasonably likely" to win when the case comes to trial Feb. 16. She did, however, call the transfers a "good faith" effort by a governor facing an overcrowding crisis.


Prison break
Gov. Schwarzenegger rediscovers his boldness in pushing for California's first real reform in years.
January 17, 2007

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER is a medical paradox. Ever since breaking his leg, he has been strengthening his spine. 

The reformer who came into office in 2003 with big ideas about fixing a badly broken prison system, then dropped them like 500-pound barbells in the face of the same drearily predictable political and union opposition that has turned California's system into a national disgrace, is suddenly returning to his old form.

Signs of the governor's rehabilitation emerged in December, when he proposed a prison plan dramatically different from his preelection focus on mere bricks and mortar. He still wants to build more facilities — at a cost of $10.9 billion, to be funded largely by borrowing — but his latest plan also tackles the state's highly flawed but politically sacrosanct sentencing and parole rules. 

Most important, the budget blueprint he unveiled last week calls for eliminating parole for nonviolent ex-convicts. In California, almost everyone released from prison goes on parole for at least three years regardless of the crime or risk of another offense — an unusually harsh condition matched by only one other state. By focusing on so many ex-cons, we waste tax dollars that would be far better spent tracking the truly dangerous, instead of creating a revolving door for our prisons. It's no accident that California has the nation's worst recidivism rate.

About 70,000 ex-cons in California return to prison each year because of parole violations. Research shows that about 20% of those have never committed a violent offense. Many are addicts who fail mandatory drug tests; others neglect to notify supervisors of an address change or commit some other minor infraction. Getting these people out of the system would free up time and money to supervise the worst ex-criminals while relieving the state's untenable and dangerous prison overcrowding.

Schwarzenegger also aims to transfer about half of the state's juvenile offenders to county lockups. This is a win-win situation on paper, though it could be disastrous if poorly implemented. Under the plan, counties would be amply reimbursed, and the state would still save money because its high-security facilities are very expensive to run under the conditions imposed by federal monitors. The troubled youths would also benefit by moving closer to their families, which improves their odds of going straight. Yet there are many questions about whether the counties have the infrastructure or personnel to make the plan work, and the Legislature has a nasty habit of contracting with municipalities for services and then cutting off the promised funding later.

As with all reforms, the success of the governor's prison plans will depend on how they're drawn up and implemented by bureaucrats and lawmakers. As general policies, though, they're among the best solutions to California's prison crisis we've seen from Sacramento in … well, about three years, when Schwarzenegger was backing similar concepts. Here's hoping he doesn't give up so easily this time around. 

Thursday, January 11, 2007

California Focus: More prisons not the only answer
Reforming drug laws, educational system would also reduce overcrowding

Kern County supervising deputy public defender

Options for mitigating California's prison overcrowding include building our way into a prison industrial complex, reforming sentencing laws and addressing the causes underlying criminal conduct.

The first option, growing the prison system, holds the historical and present advantage. In 2001, the prison budget totaled $4.1 billion. Since then, the budget for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has more than doubled and calls for $8.75 billion in spending in 2006-07. Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to expand the system by another 78,000 beds via billions in additional debt financing.

The second option, sentencing reform, has received, if not a tepid response, then at least not a ringing endorsement. In 2004, Californians defeated a ballot initiative designed to reform the "three strikes, you're out" law, which imposes life prison sentences of at least 25 years on repeat offenders, even if their "third strike" offense is for a nonserious felony such as drug possession or petty theft with a prior conviction.

Although many Californians blanch at the prospect of retooling "three strikes," they may wish to consider revisiting punishment of nonviolent offenders by further reforming of California's antiquated drug laws.

Presently, a drug user apprehended under the influence of a controlled substance faces mandatory jail for 90 days to a year. However, the same user who is caught with some of his or her stash not yet consumed is likely to be charged with a felony, possession of a controlled substance.

Even after the passage of Proposition 36, the drug-treatment initiative, California prisons still hold nearly 15,000 inmates serving sentences for simple drug possession, including 681 serving life sentences for simple possession as a third strike.

The arguments for imprisoning drug users typically fall into two categories: Many users are addicts who feed their addiction by committing other crimes such as burglary and theft. Other users and addicts, those who don't respond to drug treatment, may benefit from being forcibly detoxed via incarceration.

There are problems with both theories. While many addicts no doubt steal, lie, cheat or prostitute themselves to support their habits, individuals are sentenced to prison based on conduct not speculation regarding their conduct. If the state wishes to imprison a thief, it should be because he or she was actually caught stealing.

The reasoning behind the tough-love approach is likewise debatable. Some drug users or addicts who do not respond to treatment or shock incarceration in county jail may benefit from a prison commitment. However, is it worth the $34,000 annual cost to taxpayers, particularly since it is commonly reported that drugs are readily available in prison?

Moreover, does it make sense to condemn the drug possessor to the lifetime stigma of a felony conviction, while consigning his simply intoxicated colleague to a misdemeanor conviction?

The third option for reducing prison overcrowding involves addressing the underlying causes of criminal conduct. As a rule, persons commit crimes either because they are immoral, intoxicated, make an ill-considered judgment, suffer from a mental disability or because they lack the skills to economically compete or survive. Admittedly, it is difficult to legislate improvement of one's judgment, moral code, sobriety or mental health.

Under our present "No Child Left Behind" education mandates, a one-size-fits-all approach rules. Irrespective of whether a child might thrive as a tradesman or craftsman, he or she is channeled into the same academic regimen as a gifted classmate.

The European model suggests an alternative. While departing from the egalitarian ideal, it recognizes that no two children are alike. Many children will benefit from a college preparatory education. Others' potential and value may not be fully realized through standardized testing, but instead through providing them with real skills to compete in the marketplace.

Ultimately, whether one agrees with sentencing or education reform, change will occur in our prison system, even if only in the form of continued budget increases and bond packages designed to increase our ability to incarcerate more people for greater periods of time.

  CDC Over-Population Articles - Old

CDC Over-Population Articles - 2006


  Three Strikes Legal - Index