After being threatened with contempt by a panel of federal judges for failing to sufficiently reduce the number of prisoners in California’s jails, Governor Jerry Brown reluctantly unveiled a plan this month to further reduce the Golden State’s overcrowded prisons by another 9,000 inmates. Enthusiasm in Sacramento was in short supply.
Governor Brown argued that court orders were forcing him to jeopardize public safety by transferring prisoners to county jails and offering some of them early release.
Prisons chief Jeffrey Beard was more direct: “The plan is ugly. We don’t like it.”
Two years ago, California’s prisons held twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold, and that led to serious problems. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Plata that California was violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court estimated that an inmate in California’s prisons died every six to seven days due to inadequate medical care caused by overcrowding. Suicidal inmates were forced to stand in metal cages for 24 hours without access to restrooms. California was ordered to reduce inmate populations over two years from 150,000 to 110,000. When Jerry Brown crowed this January that California had done enough to satisfy the court’s requirements, he was threatened with contempt unless he continued reducing prison rolls down to the mandated target.
How did California’s prisons get so crowded in the first place? Golden State voters contributed to this crisis by approving some of the most stringent sentencing measures in the nation, including the 1994 Three Strikes Initiative. The law mandates 25 years to life in prison for three-time felons, even for nonviolent crimes. Strict sentencing laws enjoy bipartisan support in Sacramento. Republican legislators exult in preaching a tough-on-crime mantra — especially to the older, white demographic that tends to vote for them. And Democrats are surprisingly among the loudest voices calling for tougher sentencing laws lest they be called-out for being soft on crime.
Enter the California Correction Peace Officer’s Association, CCPOA, better known as the prison guards union.
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- California prison battle heading to U.S. Supreme Court (mercurynews.com)
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- Calif. struggles with experiment to shift inmates (heraldonline.com)