According to Gov. Jerry Brown, the overcrowding emergency in California's prisons has ended and he believes that state officials should once again have the responsibility of overseeing California prisons.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared the emergency in 2006 because of overcrowding, but since that time the inmate population has decreased from approximately 43,000 to 119,200. This is in large part due to Brown's prison realignment program that shifted a percentage of inmates from prisons to county jails, although there is now an issue of jails being overcrowded according to some sheriffs.
California faces a deadline: the state must inform a federal court of an effective plan to further reduce the prison inmate population by June. An appeal was filed by state attorneys requesting that federal judges undo an order which set a limit on California's prison inmate population. In the court filing, the health care issues and the overcrowded conditions were called "a distant memory" by state attorneys.
Reductions in California's prison population were ordered by federal courts primarily because of the overcrowding, which was found to have violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, particularly for inmates in need of medical and mental health care.
Not to mention the fact that California transferred inmates to other states, although Brown has plans to return them all to California by 2016.
At a recent news conference Brown stated, "We've gone from serious constitutional problems to one of the finest prison systems in the United States, and if we don't (win), we have a direct appeal on the matter of the prison cap to the U.S. Supreme Court, and we will go there if needed," Brown said.
A continued reduction of the inmate population has been warned against by the head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Jeff Beard, who has for some time been a critic of the state's prisons. "Independent expert reviews have found that California's prison medical and mental health care systems meet constitutional standards. It would be both unnecessary and unsafe for the courts to order further inmate reductions," Beard said in a statement.
Yet this perspective is strongly opposed by Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office. "Their assertion that the population can't be reduced by 9,000 prisoners is ridiculous." Specter noted that "state prison officials have classified more than 40 percent of the remaining population as "low-risk", but when it comes to health issues, inmates still "don't get access to timely medical care."
According to Specter, "There are still waiting lists to get critical mental health treatment. ... The suicide rate is among the highest in the country."
So what does this mean for California's prisons and its inmates? The bottom line is the state leaders must find a way to uphold the basic civil rights that are due to the inmates, while redefining the integrity and effectiveness of the state prisons.