By Boston Woodard
On May 2, Gov. Jerry Brown filed a new prison population reduction plan that suggests, among other proposals, ways to decrease prisoners’ sentences and modify the use of private prisons. It is his latest attempt to meet a court-ordered population cap for California’s prisons.
The governor continues to fight an overcrowding ruling that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2010. He filed his latest reduction plan after a federal three-judge panel threatened to cite Brown for not fully complying with the earlier order to lower California’s prison population. On April 11, 2013, the U.S. District Court ordered Brown to submit a new plan to further reduce the prison population by 10,000 inmates by the end of 2013.
According to Brown, the state has already reduced the number of prisoners by 42,000 since 2006.
“The State has spent well over a billion dollars to construct new health care facilities and additional treatment space in prisons throughout the State. Most significantly, a new $840 million, 1,722-bed health care facility…opening in July.”
Brown attained legislative approval for a wide-ranging prison plan that augments rehabilitative programming and locks in funding for multiple “construction upgrades to existing prison health care facilities.”
Under his leadership, the state passed and put into action Public Safety Realignment, placing low-level offenders and parole violators in county jails rather than state prisons.
The new plan claims that “due to realignment and the work of many local leaders and state officials to execute it, the prison population lowered by about 25,000 inmates in just over a year.” But Brown contends that if he continues on this path, it could jeopardize public safety.
“Now is absolutely not the time to impose further obligations on already strained counties.”
Brown’s latest plan attempts to appease existing court orders by outlining the state’s progress on some of the changes and modifications proposed by the court and defending its rejection of others.
Some of the alternative actions in the state’s plan include the following:
- Augmenting existing “good time” credits to qualifying prisoners, including second-strike prisoners with serious prior convictions.
- Releasing early some elderly and infirm prisoners who are not capable of reoffending.
- Allowing prisoner firefighter teams to include certain serious and violent prisoners.
- Enhancing the use of facilities for drug treatment.
- Funding county jails to house more state prisoners and perhaps utilizing more private prisons in California.
- Allowing the approximately 9,000 prisoners in out-of-state private prisons to remain there longer, at a cost of about $300 million annually.
- Making more room for nearly 2,000 ailing and mentally ill prisoners after the new $840 million medical facility opens this year.
The early release credits for some prisoners and the release of elderly and infirm prisoners will allow the state to gradually bring back thousands of prisoners from private prisons in other states.
One viable solution to lower the prison population that was rejected by Brown is the release of “low-risk” life prisoners with the possibility of parole. The courts have suggested that the state could release eligible convicted felons sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
In a sworn declaration, expert forensic psychologist James Austin estimates that “3,930 prisoners in this category could be released within four months of implementation.”
According to Life in Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California, a study released by Stanford Law School (Stanford Criminal Justice Center): “Studies that were conducted documenting the recidivism rates for lifers suggest that the recidivism rate—as defined by recommitment for a new offense—‘is relatively low.’”
In the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s January 2013 Lifer Report Series, examination of lifer parolee recidivism rates shows that “lifer parolees receive fewer new convictions within three years of being released to parole [than non-lifer parolees] (4.8% vs. 51.5%). They also have a markedly lower return to prison recidivism rate than non‐lifer parolees (13.3% vs. 65.1%).”
Nonetheless, Gov. Brown insists that releasing the lifers who fit the low-risk criteria “circumvents the carefully considered risk determinations of the Board of Parole Hearings” and violates the constitutional rights of crime victims to be heard in parole proceedings.
Brown’s plan asserts that Austin’s estimate that 96% of eligible life prisoners are low risk is “simply wrong” and that Austin’s low recidivism rates of lifer prisoners who were released was based on prisoners already deemed by a Board of Parole Hearings panel to “no longer pose an unreasonable risk to public safety.”
Brown argues that “since the vast majority of lifers currently eligible for parole consideration have been denied parole by a Board panel following extensive review and hearing, the evidence and indeed logic would dictate that most of these inmates continue to pose an unreasonable risk.” As a result, recidivism rates of these prisoners “can be expected to be higher if they were released.”
The Life in Limbo study revealed “in a cohort of convicted murders released since 1995 in California, the actual recidivism rate is in fact miniscule.” The study showed that among the 860 murderers paroled by the Board since 1995, “only five individuals have returned to jail or returned to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations for new felonies since released, and none of them recidivated for life-term crimes.” This figure represents less than one percent overall for released lifers.
Though Brown touts the fairness of parole board decisions, the courts have overturned many decisions by the Board of Parole Hearings, deeming its denials of parole either unlawful, not applicable or simply wrong in numerous cases. For Brown to use parole board denials (normally based on the crime itself) as a blanket justification for not releasing low-risk lifers is at best grasping at straws.
According to an April 2013 ruling, the California Court of Appeals found that immutable facts, such as a prisoner’s criminal history, does not by itself demonstrate an unreasonable risk to public safety. Thus, the sole evidence (in Brown’s plan) supporting his claim that lifers denied a parole “pose an unreasonable risk to public safety” is unsubstantiated.
The federal court has ordered Brown to submit a list of “all prison population measures” talked about in the Plata lawsuit. The court further directed Brown to list the “measures in the order that [the State] would prefer to implement them.” The plan points out that the court order disregards whether the governor has the requisite authority to do so.
As a response, Brown will take the unusual step of drafting legislative language for the measures he supports and will submit that language to the legislature for its consideration.
Once the draft language has been submitted, obviously it will be up to the legislature to determine whether the language should be introduced as a bill and advanced through the legislative process.
Brown is convinced that no further population reductions—beyond the measures advocated by his plan—are necessary. Touting the improvements in the state’s prison healthcare system, realignment and implementation of Prop 36, he expects the prison population to continue to decline.
Brown contends that if the legislature immediately passes the measures he advocates as urgency legislation, and does not pass any other measures to shift prisoners back to the state, then by December 2013 the state will come within 2,570 inmates (within 2.2%) of satisfying the court-ordered population target and will fully satisfy the court-ordered target in June 2014. And, with these measures in place, Brown claims the resulting reductions will continue to grow over the next several years.
(Author’s note: Boston Woodard is not serving a life sentence.)
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist. He has written for the San Quentin News and the Soledad Star and edited The Communicator. Boston is the author of Inside the Broken California Prison System, which is available at Amazon. Learn more at www.brokencaliforniaprison.com.