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California shuffle: prisoners to come home to roost

Jennifer Thompson | 7/13/2011, 5 p.m.

Back in January 2010, a three-judge panel composed of a federal appeals judge for the 9th Circuit and two federal district judges, ordered the state to reduce its prison population in six-month benchmarks from 179 percent of design capacity to 137.5 percent within two years. The state filed an appeal of the decision to the United States Supreme Court and lost.

In May, the U.S. the Supreme Court upheld the three-judge panel's finding that California prison overcrowding is unconstitutional and leads to severe violations of inmates' basic rights.

In order to comply with the panel's order, the state Legislature passed a series of enabling bills, and then last month submitted a report updating the court about the prison population reduction measures undertaken.

The passed bills include Assembly Bill 109, approved by the Legislature on April 4 and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. It is a major component of the state's plan to comply with the court's order.

This law will require tens of thousands of adult felons to serve their sentences under local control rather than in state prison.

According to the state department of corrections, low-level, nonviolent, and non-sexual offenders as defined by the California penal code convicted after Oct. 1 of this year will serve sentences in county jail instead of going to state prison.

And, contrary to what has been reported and rumored, the state does not currently expect to release any inmates early to comply with the court order.

The legislation also contains funding to underwrite the cost of this shifting of responsibility.
Under AB 109, new re-entry facilities funded by the state, as well as new mental health facilities will be constructed at the California Medical Facility and the California Institution for Women.

Additionally, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), AB 109 requires California to reduce inmate overcrowding within its 33 adult institutions to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years. The design capacity rate is the number of inmates a prison can house based on one inmate per cell. The state's system was designed to accommodate a total of 79,858 inmates. However, all 33 adult facilities today operate at approximately 179 percent of design capacity.

CDCR has set a timetable to decrease the inmate population to no more than 167 percent by Dec. 27, 2011; 155 percent by June 27, 2012; 147 percent by Dec. 27, 2012 and 137.5 percent by May 24, 2013.

Fourteen days following each deadline, the state must file a report advising the court whether the estimated population reduction has been achieved, and if not, must provide reasons for the deficiency and discuss measures taken to meet the required reduction.

Under AB 109, counties will incarcerate, provide community supervision, and rehabilitate lower-level adult offenders, including non-serious, nonviolent offenders who have not been convicted of a registrable sex crime. According to CDCR, individuals who are returned to custody for violating their conditions of parole will "serve a custody term in county jail."

According to Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for CDCR, on the state level key findings show that 75 percent of felons who recidivate return to prison within a year of release.