SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California would seek to reduce inmates’ sentences while increasing its use of private prisons to meet a court-ordered population cap by the end of the year, under a plan Gov. Jerry Brown filed late Thursday.
The proposals include increasing early release credits for inmates and paroling elderly and incapacitated prisoners, while slowing the return of thousands of inmates who are being held in private prisons in other states.
The Democratic governor intends to seek a delay of those steps while he appeals the ruling on overcrowding, which already has been upheld once by the U.S. Supreme Court.
He filed the plan after federal judges last month threatened to cite him for contempt it they find he is not following their previous order to cut the number of inmates.
The state already is sentencing thousands of lower-level offenders to county jails instead of prison, and Brown argues that he can’t do more without endangering public safety.
California needs to shed another 9,300 state inmates after the judges ruled that greatly reducing the prison population is the most effective way to improve medical and mental health care for inmates. Current treatment has been ruled unconstitutional.
Options in the state’s plan include:
— Granting more early release or “good time” credits to inmates, including second-strike inmates who have serious prior convictions.
— Paroling elderly and medically incapacitated inmates who are deemed unlikely to commit new crimes.
— Expanding the number of inmate firefighters by letting some serious and violent offenders participate.
— Increasing the use of drug treatment centers.
— Paying to house more inmates at county jails with extra space, and possibly at private prisons within California.
— Slowing the return of the 8,400 inmates who are being housed in private prisons in three other states at an annual cost of about $300 million.
— Adding space for 1,700 sick and mentally ill inmates when a new $840 million treatment facility opens in Stockton this summer.
— Freeing a projected 900 inmates because voters in November softened the state’s tough three-strikes lifetime sentencing law for career criminals. Proposition 36 changed the law to require that the third strike be a violent or serious felony and lets third-strikers with lesser offenses apply for shorter sentences. The administration rejected a proposal to release about 2,800 eligible inmates without court hearings.
The administration argued against many of the proposals even as it presented the options to the court in a series of legal filings.
Most would require legislative approval, and the governor promised to present them to the Legislature for its consideration. However, the administration argued that Brown cannot be expected to “advocate for the Legislature to pass measures that would jeopardize public safety….”
“It will be up to the Legislature to determine” whether to go along, the administration said, though the court has said it could waive state laws if lawmakers don’t agree.
Under the court order, the state must reduce the population in its 33 adult prisons to about 110,000 inmates by year’s end.
The population already has been reduced by about 25,000 inmates under a two-year-old law that is sending felons convicted of what are deemed to be non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual offenses to county jails instead of state prisons.
Brown argues that most of the less serious offenders already have been filtered out of the state prison system. He also says the state can no longer afford to provide expensive care in prisons at the expense of schools and other social services.
The federal judges ruled that the state can reduce the prison population by about another 8 percent without increasing crime. Absent a stay of the order, Brown will have to begin moving immediately.
“They could provide increased good-time credits and modestly shorten the terms of people without any effect on public safety at all,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which filed a lawsuit over prison crowding.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.