Prison inmate population to be reduced by 33,000

California, complying with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, will reduce its state prison population by some 33,000 inmates over the next two years, in large part by diverting low-level offenders to local lockups.

State prisons director Matthew Cate said the population of California’s 33 prisons, more than 143,000 inmates, would be reduced to more than 109,000 prisoners within the two-year window ordered Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The 143,000 figure does not include the 10,000 inmates that are housed at out-of-state prisons, nor does it include thousands of other inmates “under the authority and control” of the Corrections Department.

The reduction would result not from freeing prisoners en masse, Cate said, but from existing inmates completing  their time and being released and not being replaced by new, lower-level offenders, who would serve their time locally instead.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a split 5-4 decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said California’s crammed prison had violated the law for years and said the court’s action was needed to address an injustice.

But Justice Antonin Scalia called the court’s decision “perhaps the  most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history,” contending that “the staggering number of 46,000 convicted felons” would be required to be set free.

 “Our goal is not to release inmates at all. Those offenders will ‘attrit out,’ having served their normal sentences and they would not be replaced because the new offenders would be sent to county jails,” he said.

The goal, he added, is to make the amount “not through releases but through future diversions.” Some 13,000 parole violators, for example, could be sent to local custody and “no longer would be going to prison but going to county jails.”

Gov. Brown, in his 2011-12 budget plan, has proposed a shift in authority and funding to local governments, including the transfer of inmates to local custody – a move, which the administration calls realignment, that requires legislative approval. Months ago, he urged transferring 40,000 to local lockups, but the funding was not approved.

Scalia’s numbers do not jibe with those of Cate, unless the 13,000 parole-revocation cases are considered in addition to the 33,000 noted by Cate or refer to a time when the prison system was even more crowded than it is now.

“Today’s decision should end the political debate over realignment of our correctional system,” said Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat. “It’s time to move forward and implement the Governor’s plan.”

The push to shift inmates to local jails has drawn criticism from law enforcement officials, who say local governments are as financially strapped – or more so – than the state and can ill-afford to house more inmates. Budget constraints have forced local staff reductions and inmate releases.

Brown, who has sought extending existing to help balance the state’s books said the high court’s decision will require the state to approve funding to pay for the realignment, such as legislation that boost inmates’ good-time credits for early release.

“We must now secure full and constitutionally guaranteed funding to put into effect all the realignment provisions contained in AB 109. As we work to carry out the Court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety,” Brown said in a prepared statement released by his office.

Assemblywoman Connie Conway, the Assembly’s Republican leader, denounced the high court’s decision.

“The Supreme Court today chose to ignore the devastating impact that a population cap would have on our communities and instead paved the way for the early release of tens of thousands of dangerous criminals.  This is an example of legislating from the bench at its worst.”

The high court, culminating years of litigation launched by prisoners’ rights advocates who said the overcrowding in California’s prisons represented cruel and unusual punishment barred by the constitution.

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