Will California Free 57,000 Prisoners?

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Will California Free 57,000 Prisoners?

Post  Yoke on Sat Apr 04, 2009 1:29 pm

California this week moved another step closer to releasing a third of its prison population.

After months of wrangling, a federal three-judge panel announced this week that it intended to order California to significantly reduce its prison population in order to ensure that the state is providing the services constitutionally guaranteed to prisoners, like adequate health care. The state will appeal, of course, and litigation will probably go on for years. But the writing is on the wall.

The state's 33 prisons, designed for 84,000 inmates, are at 188% of capactity - with 158,000 at last count. The judges said they planned to order the state to reduce the population to at most 145% of capactity, which would mean freeing at 36,000 inmates, and as many as 57,000. The state would likely aim to reduce the population through early parole release and a reduction in the number of parolees readmitted for violations. But state lawyers also said they'd appeal the decision.

From the court's "tentative ruling," which they released in order to give the state more time to get ready for the ruling when it does come:

Even if a portion of the savings from population reduction is diverted to new investments in community and prison programming, California could still save between $561 and $684 million a year. It appears from these figures that the State could easily fully fund all the community rehabilitative and other programs that would implement the recommendations of its own experts without expending any funds other than those regularly provided in the prisons budget.

The New York Times pointed to California's parole policies as a major cause of the overcrowding problem:

California is the only state in the nation that paroles 98 percent of released inmates, even if they have completed their sentences. About 70,000 parolees return to prison every year. Nationally, states parole an average of 40 percent of their released inmates.

“That is a major reason for the overcrowding problem,” said Joan Petersilia, a parole expert at the RAND Corporation. “Everybody goes on parole in California,” she said. “Everybody serves at least one year” on parole. Many parolees go back to prison for violations, including failed drug tests.

Freakonomics author Steven Levitt wrote this week that he expects the California prison population to grow more slowly than other states, even while this case drags on. It lagged behind prison growth nationwide in 2007 and the slowdown will go on as long as judges and corrections officials see the court's ruling hanging over them.

This case is far from over, but our policies of mass incarceration are in question and other states are watching.

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