By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO — California’s budget provides the framework for the state to comply with a federal court order to slice its prison population by more than 20 percent over the next two years but also acknowledges the state is not likely to meet its initial deadline.
Plans for the change gained urgency this spring after the U.S. Supreme Court, on a 5-4 decision, upheld the authority of a federal judicial panel to order the release of inmates to relieve overcrowding and improve conditions.
The centerpiece of the state’s response was funded in the budget that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last week. It will redirect $5 billion from state sales and vehicle taxes to local governments so they can accommodate some 40,000 lower-level offenders who otherwise would serve their sentences in a state prison.
While they provided the money, lawmakers also delayed the program to give the state and counties time to coordinate. The change will begin Oct. 1 instead of in July, making it unlikely the state can meet the federal court’s Dec. 27 deadline to reduce its prison population by about 10,000 inmates.
“We’re of the opinion that, based on the information that we have right now, that even if they started tomorrow they can’t meet the benchmark,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, which has been a plaintiff against the state in several prison-related cases.
Whether the delay matters will be up to the three-judge panel that has been overseeing the case.
While the delay puts the state at risk of violating the court order, the fact that the new budget provides the money to accomplish it may buy the state more time. State Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate noted that the Supreme Court opinion also said the state could ask for more time if it needed it.
“I think our last resort is to just flat release people early, and we would certainly ask the court for more time before we would do that,” he said.
The state will file a report with the court on July 21 that will say whether it expects to meet its end-of-the-year goal.
Under the change, no inmates will be physically transferred. Those currently serving time in state prison will remain there until they finish their sentences.
Instead, anyone convicted of a lower-level offense starting Oct. 1 will be eligible to serve their time in a county jail rather than a state prison. Over time, the transfer of that responsibility to counties is expected to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons.
Until the shift takes effect, the Brown administration will keep in place an emergency declaration imposed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger so the state can continue sending inmates to private prisons in other states.
The Supreme Court decision in May upheld a lower court ruling that California must reduce the population of its 33 adult prisons by more than 33,000 inmates over two years to improve inmate medical and mental health care.
The plan by the Brown administration will give local law enforcement jurisdiction, after Oct. 1, over low-level adult offenders convicted of crimes that are considered non-violent and non-serious, such as property, white collar and drug offenses. Those convicted of sexual offenses will not be eligible for transfers to county jails.
The strategy is projected to reduce the state’s prison population by up to 40,000 inmates over three years, leaving about 120,000 inmates. Aside from the 33 adult prisons affected by the court orders, California also has about 18,000 inmates in firefighting camps and in private prisons in California and other states. The population reduction within the 33 adult prisons will leave them with about 110,000 inmates in space designed for about 80,000 inmates.
Cate said the biggest drop is expected in the first year as parole violators and felons serving short sentences are diverted to local jails. Counties also will have jurisdiction for many parolees and rehabilitation programs.
State Sen. Mark Leno, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, defended the Legislature’s decision to give corrections and county officials an extra three months to prepare.
“We’re trying to negotiate with the court for a more reasonable timeframe,” said Leno, D-San Francisco.
State organizations representing sheriffs, police chiefs and chief probation officers accepted the additional responsibility, now that the state budget includes the money to implement the inmate shift. Local governments plan to seek a state constitutional amendment to guarantee the funding continues indefinitely.
The state district attorneys association, however, said the change could overwhelm county jails that in some cases already are overcrowded. But Chief Executive Officer Scott Thorpe said the bill ultimately signed by Brown was better than earlier proposals.
The budget package was passed in the Assembly and Senate without support from Republicans, the minority party in both houses. Republicans said the plan could lead to the early release of criminals from county jails that can’t handle the number of inmates they will receive.
Republican state Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, a former chairman of the state parole board and the GOP’s spokesman on the prison debate, said he thinks lawsuits might delay or derail the realignment.
“We will be weeping in our hearts for the victims,” he said.