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April 21, 2013

Do recent California prison reforms demonstrate Plata ruling was a success or a failure?

There was lots of debate, both within the Justices' opinions and in the outside punditry, about whether and why the Supreme Court was wise or foolish to uphold in its 2011 Plata ruling a federal judicial panel's "prisoner release order" based on California's dismal record in running its overcrowded prisons.   Now, nearly two years later, this article from today's New York Times prompts the question in the title of this post.  The article is headlined "California Tries to Regain Fuller Control of Prisons," and here are excerpts:

On the sprawling grounds of the state prison, built here in 1955, a new three-story, $24 million treatment center for mentally ill inmates stands out because of its freshly painted walls and rooftop solar panels.  Inside, on a recent morning, psychologists and social workers were leading group therapy sessions for inmates in large, brightly lighted rooms while individual meetings were being held in smaller offices.

By all accounts, the opening of the new wing in January, as well as that of a crisis center and a housing unit for more troubled inmates in recent years, has improved the quality of mental health care in this prison, known formally as the California Medical Facility.  In the past, the group sessions were held in a housing unit’s common room and left those not participating locked in their cells, unable to socialize or watch television....

California is arguing that the building here, just west of Sacramento, part of the $1.2 billion spent on improving mental health care in the last three years, is an example of why the state should be allowed to regain fuller control over its prisons, the nation’s largest correctional system.  But federal judges recently issued stinging criticisms of the state, denying its bid for greater authority in two related cases and affirming the continuing need for federal overseers to achieve a level of care required by the United States Constitution.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been pressing strongly for the end of federal oversight since the beginning of the year, has said that the state will appeal the two decisions. Meanwhile, Mr. Brown and other state officials have been given until early May to submit a plan to further reduce overcrowding in the state prisons or be held in contempt of court....

The judges and lawyers representing inmates said that the improvements had been made only because of federal oversight. “We know they’ve needed treatment space for 20 years,” Michael Bien, a lawyer who has long represented inmates, said of the new building here. “It’s just an example of yes, they did it — great. They did it only under compulsion of the law. It wasn’t voluntary.”

Mr. Bien was involved in a class-action lawsuit regarding mental health care filed by inmates against the state more than two decades ago. In 1995, a federal court appointed a special master to carry out reforms in mental health care, which it found inadequate at the time and in violation of the Constitution. The court ruled this month that the federal overseer was necessary to remedy continuing constitutional violations behind problems like the high suicide rate.

The state is arguing that mental health care meets or exceeds constitutional standards. It is spending $400 million a year on mental health care in its prisons, and a dozen new facilities valued at a total of $1.2 billion have been built in the past three years or are under construction....

A special three-judge federal court also denied the state’s motion to overturn an order to reduce prison overcrowding from its current level of 150 percent of capacity to 137.5 percent by the end of this year.

In 2009, the court found that adequate mental and medical health care could not be delivered because of overcrowding — which reached more than 200 percent in 2006 — and ordered the state to reduce the prison population gradually. The Supreme Court upheld the order in 2011 after the state appealed.

California has already cut its prison population by 25,000 inmates to about 120,000 by sending low-level offenders to county jails in a policy known as realignment. Mr. Beard said that sending 10,000 more inmates to county jails — the number required to reach the court-mandated goal of 137.5 percent of capacity — would overwhelm the counties. Some county officials, forced to release inmates early from increasingly packed jails, have blamed realignment for a rise in break-ins and auto thefts.

Barry Krisberg, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on California’s prisons who testified in the 2011 Supreme Court case, said it was unlikely the state would succeed in its appeals because of that 2011 ruling. “He can’t win these cases,” Mr. Krisberg said, referring to the governor. “In my view, it’s nearly impossible to go to the same Supreme Court and within a year ask them the same question.”

Instead of looking only to realignment, Mr. Krisberg said, the state must consider the politically difficult option of shortening sentences for good behavior, a policy that previous governors have carried out without an increase in crime. “If they were to restore good-time credits for the people who are doing everything we’re asking of them in prison, they could get these numbers,” he said, referring to the 137.5 percent goal.

April 21, 2013 at 11:43 AM | Permalink


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My opinion is this was a ruling that no person should object to happening within the system. There's so many inmates being given sentences where the amount of time given doesn't seem to fit the crime. I don't believe the 3-strike law has been used for the purpose it was written. I believe everyone should have to pay the time for the crime committed. Yet, I don't believe a person should be given sentences that are based on the crime they've paid society for committing. Prisoners once released are not really free because of their having to report to parole or probation and because of that stipulation this gives the police the reason to harass the ex-convict. The ex-convict is arrested on a violation that is ridicules and given an astronomical amount of time for not having an address or having a positive UA that the inmate didn't get any rehabilitation while incarcerated. Therefore, this contributes to the overcrowding within the prison system. I strongly feel that giving low level prisoners an early release would actually be the logical step in reducing inmate population. Most of the low level prisoners are in prison for crimes that relate to drugs and not getting the treatment to get their lives back to normalacy. The State Of California spend more money on housing inmates than spent for education. If those monies were spent to educate these prisoners on their addictions there would be less prisoners in the system.

Posted by: Johnnie Palmer | Jun 13, 2013 11:31:33 AM

I submittted a blog regarding the overcrowding of the prisons and failed to state I'm a single mother of a son that I had asked for help for him when he was a teenager and the system did not honor my request. My son is serving an eight year sentence in a prison that is located out of the state of California. Therefore, his children or myself are not able to visit him because of the state relocating him so far away. The system states they want the inmates to interact with society but how is that accomplished when they have no visitors. The charges are for possession with an intent to sell. The informant was given $30,000 to get on the stand and lie and had charges pending at the time. What would make the judicial system pay one criminal to testify against another criminal and get paid. The judicial system needs to be looked at by the people and some things definitely need to be changed.

Posted by: Johnnie Palmer | Jun 13, 2013 11:41:35 AM

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