The majority upheld a limit of 137.5 percent of capacity that had been set in 2009 by a special three-judge federal court. Extensive evidence had convinced the judges that the state could reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 out of more than 140,000 “without an adverse impact on public safety,” and that there was “universal official support” for the state to do so.
A month ago, the three-judge panel again ordered the state to take “all steps necessary” to meet the limit. In response, the state made clear that it did not ever intend to meet the limit and certainly not by the deadline of June next year. It said in part that “continued enforcement of the population reduction order will be unnecessary and legally inappropriate once the population density reaches 145 percent.” The plaintiffs have now asked the panel to order the state to show why it should not be held in contempt for “such willful disobedience.”
There is no reason that California cannot meet the goal. Since last October, when it began to send nonviolent and other less dangerous offenders to county jails or local probation programs instead of prison, the state has reduced its number of prisoners by 24,000, to about 120,000. Trimming 10,000 more, and meeting the court-ordered limit, seems well within reach.
One tactic is to increase modestly the “good time” credit for low-risk inmates who have followed prison rules and taken part in prison programs, since California now grants minimal credit compared with other states.
But that would mean actually freeing prisoners, instead of incarcerating more of them, which in turn would require the state to free itself of the law-and-order mind-set that has governed its attitude toward prisoners for two generations — a mind-set reflected in the nation’s harshest three-strikes law and other measures that yield unnecessarily long prison sentences while contributing to one of the nation’s worst recidivism rates.
Some of California’s citizens have escaped that spell and put on this fall’s ballot the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 Initiative. This is a good idea, but it would be better if passed by the Legislature rather than enacted by initiative, which is a poor way to make law.
This proposal would restrict sentences of 25 years to life mainly to offenders whose third felony was serious or violent. It would save the state up to $90 million a year in reduced prison costs without adding risk to public safety.
It is a principled, creative approach, far more so than the often contemptuous way the state has chosen to respond to the court’s reasonable efforts to get it to reduce overcrowding in its prisons.
Original article on The New York Times