L.A. Worries About State's Plan To Reduce Inmates

Los Angeles is bracing for what happens when California releases more than 30,000 inmates from the state's prison system. The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered counties and other states to help ease state prison overcrowding, but L.A. jails already are well over capacity.

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In California, today is the deadline to present a plan to drastically cut its prison population. The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered California to reduce the number of inmates by 33,000. Some will be sent to prisons in other states. Many more will likely end up in county jails. And that has local leaders bracing for the worst, as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: The state calls it a realignment - a massive shift of 33,000 inmates from state prisons to county jails over two years. That means many inmates will likely end up serving time where they committed their crimes - Los Angeles. And that has everyone from L.A. cops to probation officers, the coroner and politicians, worried.

Mr. MIKE ANTONOVICH (Supervisor, L.A. County): We don't have the ability to absorb these individuals.

DEL BARCO: That's L.A. County supervisor Mike Antonovich talking to a meeting of key players in L.A.'s criminal justice system.

Mr. ANTONOVICH: We are not accustomed to handle this type of population.

DEL BARCO: Antonovich calls the Supreme Court decision a reckless, unfunded mandate. He warns it will be impossible for his already overburdened county to handle thousands more convicts.

Mr. ANTONOVICH: We have a tough time providing housing for our own inmates. And who's going to pay for these individuals after six months? What do you do with a repeat offender? We don't have mental health programs to provide for our own people; now we're going to have all these other individuals coming in. This is really a Pandora's Box.

DEL BARCO: While the details of the state's plan are not yet public, it's expected that most of the realignment will be accomplished through the placement of new inmates, not the relocation of existing prisoners. And county jails will likely be asked to take in low-level criminals, not violent or sex offenders.

But that's little comfort for L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley. He expects the changes to result in more criminals being released early, only to commit more crime.

Mr. STEVE COOLEY (District Attorney, L.A. County): They are going to rape. They are going to rob. They are going to kill people. They are going to deal drugs. And they are going to be involved in a part one crime.

DEL BARCO: Cooley points to a recent computer glitch that led to the early release of 450 prisoners deemed high risk. They were listed among those who don't have to report to parole officers. Cooley fears it could happen again.

Mr. COOLEY: They better be darn careful about which ones they release. They better start thinking. And right now, their track record is not too hot.

DEL BARCO: L.A.'s jail system has its share of problems. Overcrowding is so bad a federal judge once likened conditions to cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the county to cap the number of inmates.

Mr. PETER ELIASBERG (Managing Attorney, ACLU, Southern California): The jails are grossly overcrowded. They are horrific.

DEL BARCO: Peter Eliasberg is an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. Under a federal consent decree, the group monitors conditions at L.A.'s jam-packed jails.

Mr. ELIASBERG: You're going to dump another 10,000 more prisoners into that system? It is a prescription for disaster. It is going to become a much greater cauldron of violence, overcrowding and idleness

DEL BARCO: And after the planning and legal wrangling is over, the task of housing the next inmates will fall to L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca.

Sheriff LEE BACA (Sheriff's Department, Los Angeles County): I'm the one that's running these jails.

DEL BARCO: Baca says to comply with the realignment plan he'll need more money, more medical and mental services, more deputies and more jail space.

Sheriff BACA: We will not take a prisoner that we don't have room for, and recreate the same condition that is in the State of California's prison system.

DEL BARCO: Baca says state felons not sent to county jails might be released early back into the community. Los Angeles already has the largest number of parolees in the country.

Sheriff BACA: There's no doubt it's a crisis. And, you know, anytime you're releasing early thousands of prisoners - in our case, Los Angeles would be a third of it, so we're looking at about an increase of about 12, 13,000 more parolees than we currently get. And to me that is a big, big challenge and I consider it an emergency.

DEL BARCO: Baca says the realignment could provide an opportunity to completely revamp California's prison and jail system, with more rehabilitation and less time behind bars. But that would take money from California, a state with a current budget deficit of nearly $10 billion.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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