Population Cap on California Prisons

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Population Cap on California Prisons

In a May 23, 2011 decision by the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata (2011) 563 U.S., the court held that a population limit of 146,000 prisoners was necessary to remedy unconstitutional medical and mental health conditions in California prisons. Although the Court recognized that there were other factors which contributed to inadequate medical and mental health care, the court nevertheless found that the primary cause of those deficiencies was overcrowding. There are just not enough qualified medical and mental health staff to effectively treat 175,000 prisoners in a system designed to house only 80,000 prisoners. These overcrowded conditions are leading to the spread of many diseases and delaying other medical conditions that are going untreated and resulting in unnecessary pain and death. Overcrowding is also affecting staff's ability to properly treat prisoner's mental health conditions. California prisons have a prison suicide rate 80% higher than the national average. 72% of suicides in California prisons involved some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable had mental health staff not been overburdened with so many prisoners.

Because there was a concern with the consequences of releasing 46,000 prisoners into the community, the court ordered California to immediately start identifying those prisoners who pose the least risk of reoffending and offer them an expansion of good-time credits towards early release. Based on these concerns, it is most likely that those convicted of violence will not be afforded early release. The Court was concerned with the consequences of a previous Court ordered population cap on Pennsylvania prisons in which, during an 18-month period after their release, police rearrested 9,732 prisoners for committing new crimes. Those new crimes included 79 murders, 90 rapes, 1,113 assaults, 959 robberies, 701 burglaries, 2,748 thefts and thousands of drug related offenses. Based on that prior experience, which the Court did not want to repeat, the Court recommended that besides releasing those most likely not to reoffend, California could find other alternatives like diverting low-risk offenders to community based programs such as drug treatment, day reporting centers, and electronic monitoring, instead of releasing violent prisoners.

The California legislature was already working on such a proposal in Assembly Bill 109 which was recently passed and signed by the Governor. AB-109 includes 640 amendments to various California statutes, not all concerning prisoners. As for those that do address overcrowding, only two are worth noting.

The first is an amendment to California Penal Code (PC) 1170(h) which now allows certain persons sentenced up to 3 years to serve that entire sentence in a county jail. Before, only a sentence of 1 year or less was required to be served in the county jail. Those who will not be required to serve a sentence of 3 years or less in a county jail are: anyone who has a prior or current felony conviction for a serious felony as described in PC 1192.7(c ), a violent felony as described in PC 667.5(c ), anyone required to register as a sex offender, and anyone who received a sentence enhancement pursuant to PC 186.11.

The second change worth noting is the promulgation of "The Postrelease Community Supervision Act of 2011." This Act added sections 3000.09; and 3450 through 3458 to the California Penal Code. The Act states that all those released on and after July 1, 2011 who have not been convicted of a serious felony pursuant to PC 1192.7(c ); a violent felony as described in PC 667.5(c ); sentenced pursuant to PC 667(c )(2); PC 1170.12(c )(2); or any person classified as a High Risk Sex Offender, will no longer be on parole nor under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Instead, those persons not convicted of violent or serious felonies as described above will now be released on what will be known as "Postrelease Supervision" and will fall under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff or Director of the County Correctional department for the County that person is released to.

Those persons who qualify for postrelease supervision will be on this new form of supervision for no longer than three years at which time they will be discharged from all supervision. Those on Postrelease Supervision will not be returned to prison for violations of their postrelease supervision conditions. Instead, they will be subject to a variety of other alternatives which will be known as "Community Based Punishment." Such punishment could include what will be called "Short-Term Flash Incarceration" which means that a technical violation could subject the offender to County Jail time of no more than seven days. Other forms of community-based punishment include: intensive community supervision; additional monetary restitution; work, training, or education in a furlough program; placement in a substance abuse treatment program, community service; random drug testing; or home detention with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) monitoring.

Those who are released on and after July 1, 2011 and do not qualify for Postrelease supervision because they were convicted of violent or serious felonies as described above will remain under the jurisdiction of the CDCR and will not see any significant change in their parole conditions and parole revocation procedures.

Those who were already paroled prior to July 1, 2011 will remain under the jurisdiction of the CDCR because they were paroled before the new law took effect. Except that those who were not convicted of violent or serious felonies will have a chance to have their parole reviewed so long as they complete six months of continuous parole without any violations. If the person has not violated parole within six months, he or she will be recommended for Postrelease Supervision and subject to Postrelease Supervision as described in PC3450 through 3458. Those persons also paroled prior to July 1, 2001 but were convicted of serious and violent felonies as described above will remain on parole under the jurisdiction of the CDCR because they would not have qualified for Postrelease Supervision even if they had been paroled after the new law took effect.

California has until May 23, 2013 to comply with the release of 46,000 prisoners unless it requests a five year extension. The extension may be granted only if California satisfies necessary and appropriate preconditions designed to ensure that measures are taken to implement the release without delay. Because California has already relieved its prisons of 9,000 prisoners through out-of-state-transfers, it now has 37,000 more prisoners to address. After the United States Supreme Court had finished hearing oral arguments and was getting ready to issue its decision, California informed the Court that it was working on AB-109. California did not give the Court a specific number of prisoners that would be affected by AB-109. California only said that "thousands" would qualify under AB-109 to serve 3-years or less in a county jail and be released on Postrelease Supervision. California will eventually have to give a specific number of persons who will not end up in prison as a result of AB-109. Once California gives a specific number of persons affected by AB-109, it will then have to introduce more legislation in order to release more prisoners or prevent them from coming to prison. As of right now, no prisoner has been released, they have just been transferred to another state or prevented from ending up in prison.

This is just a brief outline of what has recently taken place to address overcrowding in California. It is up to those of you who might be affected to do your own research into the information provided above. Because of space limitations, not every detail of the Court's order or Assembly Bill 109 could be described in detail. So if you did not qualify under AB-109, you might qualify for release under another change in the law in the near future. If you will not qualify for early release in the future, you should at least see some improvement in medical and mental health care which was the whole purpose of the population cap in the first place. So everyone should be affected one way or another. Good luck with your struggles.


MIM(Prisons) comments: This is a good overview of the new court ruling about health care and overcrowding in California prisons. While we hope that the net effect of this ruling is the release of some prisoners and prevention of locking up others, we're not optimistic that this will lead to any substantive changes. We have seen court rulings in the past about prison conditions, and as the pages of Under Lock and Key have documented, the Criminal Injustice System is very creative about worming their way out of restrictions to find new ways to oppress. The size of the California prison population represents job security and high wages for staff, and they will not give this up without a fight. It is a condemnation of the imperialist system that it enables people to profit off the torture and destruction of humyns. Only by ending imperialism overall will we be able to truly change the criminal injustice system. Until that time, we hope our comrades behind bars will find creative ways to use this court ruling to their advantage.

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