TOPICS > Politics

Calif. Faces Tough Choices on Overcrowded Prisons

July 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Spencer Michels reports from California on the state's effort to comply with a Supreme Court ruling to alleviate overcrowding in the state's prisons.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next: The state of California struggles with some tough choices brought on by a recent Supreme Court ruling.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was scenes like this in a gymnasium at Solano state prison in Central California that convinced the U.S. Supreme Court last May to order the state to reduce its prison population of 143,000 inmates.

Justice Anthony Kennedy used three photos of jammed prisons to illustrate his majority opinion. The court found that more than a decade of overcrowding in a system with nearly twice as many prisoners as it was designed for defied constitutional standards and led to what Kennedy called grossly inadequate medical and mental health care.

Since the court ruling, the state has begun reducing the numbers. The Solano gym has been cleared of bunks, as some prisoners were shipped out of state. But the court ordered an additional 10,000 fewer inmates statewide by November and a reduction of 33,000 within two years to remedy a situation of which the inmates are well aware.

MICHAEL CLAYTON, Inmate: The major effects is the bathrooms, showering, just basic hygienic type of situations, crowded chow halls. You know, there’s people everywhere.

INMATE: And when the heat would rise, you know, incidents would just pop off left and right. You know, a hot summer, you never know what might happen.

SPENCER MICHELS: Critics of the court decision, including Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, said the majority opinion was “gambling with the safety of the people of California.”

But Matthew Cate, secretary of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said there will be no wholesale release of prisoners.

MATTHEW CATE, Secretary of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Anybody who’s in prison today is going to serve their full sentence. It’s diverting tomorrow’s inmate to jail, instead of prison, for example, to serve their time, and that alleviates people’s fears.

SPENCER MICHELS: While the state fought lawsuits demanding fewer inmates, one dating back 20 years, Cate partially agreed with the outcome, because the overcrowded prisons were hard to manage and often unsafe.

Was the Supreme Court urging you on to something you wanted to do anyway?

MATTHEW CATE: That’s probably a good way to say it. We fought the Supreme Court case. We think, you know, the state should be sovereign, and we should be handling our own business. But it did provide some urgency to get this done.

SPENCER MICHELS: To bring down the population in California’s 33 prisons, and comply with the high court, the administration of Governor Jerry Brown has launched a controversial plan that is certain to affect every city and county in the state.

It’s called realignment, and its aim is to send newly convicted lower-level offenders to county jails and probation departments, instead of prison. In most states, including California, jails are administered by county sheriffs and hold prisoners for short periods. Prisons are run by the state, and usually house longer-term convicts convicted of more serious crimes.

Not only will the jails become more crowded, but the kind of prisoner will change, and some local officials worry about that. Redwood City, south of San Francisco, is the county seat of San Mateo County. Its jail, more overcrowded than many, is just a few steps from downtown.

They keep the personal possessions of the more than 1,000 prisoners in these garment bags. The jail was built for about 800. Most of these inmates are serving short sentences or waiting for trial. Under the governor’s plan, this jail could get an additional 400 or 500 prisoners, overcrowding it even more.

Sheriff Greg Munks is worried.

GREG MUNKS, Sheriff, San Mateo County, California: Now we will have people up to three years, and that’s new for us. The prison gangs that are so prevalent in the state prisons, that will grow along with this population, so that’s something that we’re going to have to gear up for.

SPENCER MICHELS: Deputy Sheriff Bobby Introcaso sees problems ahead.

BOBBY INTROCASO, Deputy Sheriff, San Mateo County, California: State inmates are more — we call them more sophisticated inmates. So they know how to work systems. They know how to work deputies. They are more manipulative. You have to watch them a lot closer, and it’s a lot more work.

SPENCER MICHELS: In addition, costs of the new plan are a major concern to local officials.

In Stanislaus County, which includes Modesto, supervisor Jim DeMartini is worried.

JIM DEMARTINI, Supervisor, Stanislaus County, California: There’s no room in our jail. If we put somebody in from the state prison, we have got to kick somebody else out the back end, or we have to put more people on probation or electronic monitoring.

SPENCER MICHELS: DeMartini and Stanislaus County Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers say that, when county jails get too crowded, local sheriffs and judges will be forced to relieve the overcrowding there by releasing prisoners.

So, the Supreme Court order will reverberate throughout the system.

JERRY POWERS, Chief Probation Officer, Stanislaus County, California: Some of those individuals who are in the local system now are going to be impacted by being pushed out into lesser custodial situations, lesser supervision by probation departments.

SPENCER MICHELS: With some convicted felons, Powers says, that appears to be working out. One of his probationers is 24-year-old Cesar Rivera of Modesto, taking part here in a class on ambition.

MAN: When you guys get in trouble and you get down, and then you get in more trouble, I would think ambition kind of goes right out the door.

SPENCER MICHELS: He was arrested for petty theft and sentenced to 150 days in jail. It was his second conviction.

CESAR RIVERA, Probationer: Yes, I stole something in order to pay for my rent. So I went ahead and did a crime that I should never have, but I did it for my family.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rivera ended up getting into an alternative work program. He has a job and a wife and daughter, and he’s on probation.

CESAR RIVERA: Right now, the jails are so packed, you know, so packed, that they’re letting people that don’t have a lot of time getting released on this program.

SPENCER MICHELS: So did you spend any time in jail?

CESAR RIVERA: Yes, I actually did a day in jail.

SPENCER MICHELS: Just one day?

CESAR RIVERA: One day.

SPENCER MICHELS: But some felons, Powers argues, aren’t suited for probation. He and half-a-dozen of his probation officers go on daily operations to find felony probation violators, people who may be in possession of weapons or hanging out with gangs or using or selling drugs.

MAN: See, these are used baggies, empty baggies of meth.

SPENCER MICHELS: Such operations are expensive, but, according to Chief Probation Officer Powers, necessary. Additional demands on the department under realignment could put such programs in jeopardy.

JERRY POWERS: We think we’re going to have probably somewhere in the neighborhood of about 500 additional individuals that will be responsible to the probation officer. We’re going to need more treatment programs. Those are going to be essential in preventing that recidivist behavior that has just plagued the system for decades.

SPENCER MICHELS: The governor is hopeful that local communities can pick up the slack. He fought successfully for money in the state budget to go to counties to pay for jails and probation.

Still, many on the local level are skeptical they will get it, given California’s continuing budget crisis.

JIM DEMARTINI: There’s never any funding. It’s just unfunded mandates. So, I have got to see the money first.

SPENCER MICHELS: While Powers is unsure if the state will completely fund the additional load, he thinks the Supreme Court decision might just force reforms on a broken criminal justice system.

JERRY POWERS: I’m unhappy that it came down the way it did, although I think that it may ultimately result in a better system from front to back for California. We send these people into the back end of the system, the state prison system, and they come out worse than when we sent them in.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sheriff Munks also sees an upside to moving inmates from prisons to local jails.

GREG MUNKS: I think we can do a better job at the county level than what’s been occurring at the state, keeping these individuals closer to the community, keeping them closer to their families, keeping them and connecting them with community-based resources that they’re going to need to be successful when they get out, because they are going to get out.

SPENCER MICHELS: All the players agree that politics, right vs. left, harsh sentences vs. sentence reform, have created logjams that worsened overcrowding and prevented major changes.

Prison chief Cate says time has run out.

MATTHEW CATE: Ultimately, if the state doesn’t act in some way, then the U.S. Supreme Court has said that we may see an inmate release, and I think that’s something to be avoided. And so we’re trying to take steps proactively to avoid just that.

SPENCER MICHELS: Long term, Cate says, the state will have to build a few more prisons. Short term, local communities will absorb more offenders and hope for funding from the hard-pressed state.