State Plans to Reduce Prison Population


Gov. Jerry Brown defended California’s plan to address a court-ordered mandate to reduce California’s prison population this week, even though it leaves the state thousands of prisoners over the legal limit.

The 46-page plan, released last Thursday, says the state will reduce its prison population by 7,000 inmates and boost spending on prisoner health care by more than $1 billion.

Brown contends the extra health care addresses the court’s concern that prisoner health has been compromised to unconstitutional levels of quality due to overcrowding.

“It is important to explain the tremendous efforts and investments the state has made over the last several years to transform its prison care system to not simply meet constitutional standards but also to become one of the best in the nation,” Brown wrote in the plan.

California has the largest prison population of any state with roughly 134,000 inmates, according to a December 2012 prison census report.

Brown commented that the federal three-judge panel no longer needs to be concerned about the issue, as the state has made major progress.

Brown said he has increased healthcare spending from $7,000 to $15,000 per inmate among the state’s 33 prisons. He emphasized that the increased quality of health will continue to improve with over $1 billion spent on new healthcare facilities, including the addition of a new $840-million facility opening in July.

Despite this, the governor’s plan is still 2,300 inmates shy of the panel’s 2009 mandate. Brown faces contempt of court — a judge’s strongest power to impose sanctions if Brown fails to meet orders — and could be fined or jailed.

If Brown were held in contempt of court, it would create an unprecedented situation.

“I don’t know what the court’s options are if Brown or any governor is held in contempt. It’s never happened before,” UC Santa Barbara sociology professor and expert on crime and punishment John Sutton said. “I don’t know how that will work out for Brown or even the state.”

California’s prison guard and district attorney unions both oppose Brown’s plan, Sutton said. He attributed high incarceration rates and overcrowding to a combination of economics and cyclical prosecution behind California’s correctional policies. As a result, Sutton said the state has incarcerated more prisoners than it can take of.

“Do you expect all [convicts] to be locked up for life? They’re going to get out eventually and without any new educational training or opportunities,” Sutton said. “We’re hurting ourselves if we cannot give them a chance at law-abiding life. It’s a problem of our own making.”

The state’s prisons have been pressed by increased federal oversight since 1995. Past rulings by two of the panel members, U.S. District Judges Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson, ruled that California prisons violated the 8th Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment due to its poor quality of mental and medical care. Henderson said the conditions were responsible for as many unnecessary inmate deaths as one per week. The prison population peaked at 17,300 in 2006.