California Prisons One Year After Plata

May 29th, 2012

From this to this!

This photo, taken in April 2006, shows how crowded the gym was at Donovan state prison when it had to house inmates.  More than 150 inmates used to be housed in these beds in the gymnasium at the Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa. A 2011 state law shifted responsibility for some lower-level criminals to the county jails, which eased prison crowding.

Doug Berman links to a story from the San Diego Union-Tribune discussing how prisons in Cali have dealt with Brown v. Plata a year later:

Just a few months ago, California’s inmates were packed into double- and triple-stacked bunk beds in prison gymnasiums, classrooms and other areas never meant for housing.

Now those beds are empty.

The prison population is declining, but not because there are fewer criminals. Instead, a new state law shifted the responsibility for some lower-level offenders to the county jails, which are filling up.

State officials have “taken the monkey off their back and put it on ours,” said Sheriff Bill Gore, whose department runs seven county jails.

In the nearly eight months since the law took effect, Gore has used a number of strategies to ward off jail crowding, including early releases, but he insists the county is handling the load.

He and other county officials have said that with proper funding the local authorities can do better than the state at rehabilitating criminals so they’re less likely to end up back behind bars.

“We can’t warehouse these inmates,” Gore said.

So how many of the 33,000 prisoners ordered released have been released (about a third):

Public safety realignment, as the law is known, took effect Oct. 1.

Gov. Jerry Brown approved it last year to help fix a budget gap and help the state comply with a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the prison population by 33,000 inmates by June 2013.

And the law is working as designed.

In January, the corrections department announced that the population of inmates housed in its 33 institutions had dropped by more than 11,000 inmates over six months. This month, the population was pegged at 122,305 — 153.6 percent of capacity — according to the most recent figures available.

“The population is going down,” said Dana Simas, a department spokeswoman, who acknowledged county officials’ frustrations over rising jail populations.

“We never purported that it would be without a few bumps in the road,” Simas said.

Even with the recent inmate reductions, some doubt the state will meet the Supreme Court’s deadline.

Prison officials want the court to allow them to hold the inmate population at 144 percent of capacity — rather than the 137.5 percent as originally ordered — while maintaining constitutional standards for medical and dental care, Simas said.

“Our conditions have vastly improved,” she said.

What has the social cost (!) been of releasing these prisoners into the public?

 But, at the very least, these pictures document that a constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court combined with a serious state effort to respect that ruling can quickly engineer some needed changes to a prison system that had for many years been stalled in a political and practical quagmire concerning overcrowding.

I am hopeful that there will be a number of serious and systematic efforts to take stock of what has followed from the Plata ruling in California.  I have little doubt that the demands on local facilities as a result of the urgent need to move bodies out of state facilities has created various new problems.  Still, this story confirms my gut instinct that, a year after the controversial Plata ruling, the 5-4 decision has produced a net gain for not only the inmates who were suffering Eighth Amendment violations, but also for the entire state of California.  At the very least, there seems to be limited evidence (or at least limited reporting of evidence) that the dire predictions of doom and California crime waves right after the Plata ruling (which appeared in the Plata dissents and on this blog) were a bit overstated and hyperbolic.

We shall see.