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When the prodigals return

Art Cribbs | 7/13/2011, 5 p.m.

California's exploding prison population is being defused by order of the United States Supreme Court. The number of inmates in the system must be reduced by more than 30,000 inmates over the next two years, starting this month due to unlawful overcrowding in the state's penal system.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, determined conditions in California state prisons cause "needless suffering and death." His opinion described the consequences of such imprisonment as "cruel and unusual punishment," a violation of the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

A lower court ruled, "An inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies." That case made its way to the Supreme Court on appeal and became the basis for the High Court's order earlier this year.

Writing the dissenting minority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling, "Perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history." He was joined by justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

While many of the prisoners will be transferred to other facilities, including county jails and out-of-state prisons, an undetermined number will be released into neighborhoods throughout the state.

"My understanding is that low-level offenders will be the first group to be released," said Bill Flores, retired assistant sheriff of San Diego County. "Many believe that this class of offender should not have been put in a prison in the first place," said Flores, who spent 29 years in law enforcement.

California was ordered two years ago to reduce its prison population. In 2009, there were an estimated 160,000 prisoners held in the system that is designed for about half that number. According to Justice Kennedy, some mental health prisoners were locked in cages while other inmates were held in facilities "the size of telephone booths."

"After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population," Justice Kennedy wrote.
The state has put in place programs that allow some inmates to earn additional good-behavior credits that would reduce the time they would spend in state prison.

Such a reduction means ex-convicts could return to their communities. If so, what does that mean for the people who live in those communities?

"I would hope the community will reach out to them, understand that they are coming out of a system that is not intended to rehabilitate, but only to incarcerate," said Chris Harpole, who grew up in Willowbrook and heads the television division for American Forces Network. "To a free society, newly released prisoners will require a period of readjustment, patience and understanding," Harpole said.

Sharon Rabb, Ph.D., agrees with Harpole. Rabb is a clinical psychologist who works closely with incarcerated youth and adults and their families through her Center for the Empowerment of Families. "Upon release, many parolees have more hope and positive attitudes about their being able to change in a free society than those (who already are) free in that society," Rabb said."However, few have support needed for this hope to become a reality."