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California DOC Complies With Population Reduction Order in Plata v. Brown

by John E. Dannenberg

On June 7, 2011, a scant seven days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling affirming a three-judge panel’s order to reduce overcrowding in California’s state prisons (Brown v. Plata, No. 09-1233 (see PLN, July 2011, p. 1)), the state belatedly responded to the panel’s January 12, 2010 order to report on action it is taking to reduce its overpopulation. Next, on June 30, 2011, the panel ordered detailed monthly progress reports towards achievement of the mandated population limit of 137.5% of design capacity by June 27, 2013.

The June 7 report detailed efforts taken by the California legislature to depopulate its prisons. Major reductions were effectuated by increasing sentencing credits: (1) six weeks of credit per year for completion of approved rehabilitation programs; (2) day-for-day credits for eligible parole violators; (3) two days credit for every day served upon endorsement to a fire camp; (4) day-for-day credits for discipline-free prisoners who are on wait-lists for qualifying programs; (5) day-for-day credits for pre-prison time in county jail.

Additionally, in order to reduce the short term, revolving door parole violator population, newly-enacted Senate Bill (SB) 18 provides that low-risk violators will not be returned to prison, placed on parole hold or reported to the Board of Parole Hearings – provided they do not have any of the following disqualifiers: (1) registered sex offender; (2) currently committed for sexually violent offense; (3) ever were committed for sexually violent offense; (4) ever had violent/serious convictions; (5) had a serious disciplinary offense in recent prison term; (6) are validated gang member or associate; (7) refused parole conditions; (8) are high risk for reoffense. SB 18 also provides for community-based rehabilitation programs for probationers.

Importantly, SB 18 promotes and establishes drug, mental health and parole reentry courts, which feature non-adversarial proceedings to work with each parolee to steer him/her on the path to reintegration. Six California counties already have parole reentry courts, which have had great success in slashing recidivism.

Lastly, SB 18 raises the minimum dollar-loss thresholds for 30 property crime “wobbler” offenses, making fewer of them felonies.

The state also reported that it has transferred 10,000 prisoners to out-of-state private prisons – reducing the burden on California’s facilities. Countering the need for out-of-state placement, the state announced it is building an 1,800-bed health care facility; high-security beds inside existing sites; and new mental health facilities at one men’s and one women’s prison. Additionally, the state is converting former juvenile facilities into adult facilities, and building new re-entry facilities.

Separately, under SB 1399, the state is granting medical paroles for prisoners whose debilitated condition renders them both non-dangerous and too expensive to maintain. SB 1266 offers certain female offenders alternative custody programs when they are pregnant or the primary caregiver.

Finally, Assembly Bill (AB) 109 will, when funded, result in tens of thousands of short term, low-level, non-sex offender, non-violent offender felons serving their time in county jail instead of in state prison. More serious offenders, as well as lifer-parolee violators, will still be returned to state prison. AB 109 covers eligible felons with terms of 16 months to three years, will place such offenders on county supervision upon release rather than state parole, and will return violators to county jail – not state prison.

The effect of all of these changes on parole agent employment will be profound. In a statewide conference call, Robert Ambroselli, Director of state paroles, announced that agent employment would be reduced 80% by the year 2014.

All of the above program changes will, the state believes, provide for timely compliance with the depopulation order. Although the U.S. Supreme Court provided that the state could plead its case to the panel for more time, the state has not yet done so. The June 30, 2011 timetable it is presently ordered to comply with provides for reduction to no more than 167% of design capacity by December 27, 2011; 155% by June 27, 2012; 147% by December 27, 2012; and 137.5% by June 27, 2013. To keep the court regularly apprised, and to prevent the state from back-sliding, the court further ordered detailed update reports on the 15th of each month, beginning September 15, 2011, showing progress on reductions at each of the state’s 33 prisons, as well as monthly six-month running projections on meeting the compliance timetable.

Having gained a sweet victory in the U.S. Supreme Court after decades of fighting an intransigent prison administration, the panel is now holding the administration’s feet to the fire.

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