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California prison remedy would send low-level offenders to counties

By Michael Martinez, CNN
  • California prisons fall "below the standard of decency," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
  • The state has a plan to reduce the prison population by 33,000 inmates
  • But the unfunded plan needs approval from the state legislature and voters

Los Angeles (CNN) -- California wants to shift low-level state offenders to county jails as a way to reduce overcrowding, as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court, under an unfunded plan that would require legislative and voter approval, the state's top corrections official said Tuesday.

State officials filed the plan, which would reduce the state's 143,000 inmate population by 33,000, with federal courts Tuesday.

California voters in November would have to approve taxes to fund the plan, and state legislators also would have to approve money for the measure, officials said. The first year of the plan would cost $460 million, a state corrections spokesman said.

"There is still a risk associated with long-term funding for this plan," California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate told reporters. "The option is we do nothing or we wait until November, or we extend the revenues and we start and we demonstrate to the court that we can get this done."

If funding for the plan isn't advanced by the legislature and voters, a special court panel could order the state to free inmates, Cate said.

"I think it's scary to everyone, and I think it would be an irresponsible approach," he said.

California officials are trying to avoid that possibility through the plan with county jails, a construction program, and an ongoing program sending 10,000 inmates to contracted out-of-state facilities.

"We'll react to the facts as they arise in November. I just don't know what else you do that is responsible in light of the Supreme Court's order," Cate said. "Obviously we're planning for the legislature to act and the voters to approve. If they don't, then we have to really address what's next."

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a three-judge federal panel's determination that California's medical and mental health care for inmates falls below a constitutional level of care and that the only way to meet the requirements is by reducing prison crowding, state officials said.

The "public safety realignment plan," outlined under a law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed in April, would help reduce prison crowding by shifting 33,000 low-level offenders to county jails.

Efforts to fund the plan could face an uphill battle because the state is grappling with a staggering $25 billion budget deficit.

State prison officials called the realignment plan "the cornerstone of California's solution" to prison overcrowding, which the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision last month falls "below the standard of decency."

Under the court order, the first round of inmate reductions will have to occur by November 28 when the population in the 33 prisons must drop to 133,016 from 143,435, Cate said.

He added that the reduction of "10,500 is a big goal for five month and three weeks."

Cate insisted that the state will not arbitrarily free 33,000 inmates.

"Our current reduction plan does not include the early release of inmates. But it is absolutely critical that the legislature understand the seriousness of the Supreme Court's decision and support a variety of measures that will allow us to lower our inmate population in the safest possible way," Cate said in a prepared statement. "The Legislature must act to protect public safety by funding realignment."

California has the nation's largest prison system, and the state says it has been reducing overcrowding.

But two lawsuits -- one filed in 1990, the other in 2001 -- say the crowding is at the core of a domino effect of unsafe and unhealthy conditions for those on both sides of the iron bars.

State legislators and corrections officials have admitted the prisons violate the ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" contained in the Constitution, and have organized more than 20 panels and commissions to address the crisis.

When plaintiffs in the lawsuits filed motions to convene the three-judge court panel in November 2006, California's prisons were at 202% of design capacity, state officials said. California's 33 prisons were designed to hold 79,858 inmates, they said.

Those prisons are now operating at 179% of capacity, officials said.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the 33 adult prisons must be no more than 167% percent of design capacity by November 28, 2011; 155% by May 24, 2012; 147% by November 26, 2012: and 137.5% by May 24, 2013, officials said.