Calif. Lawmakers To Reduce Prison Population

Lawmakers in California begin overhauling some of the state's prison policies this week. They have to figure out how to cut $1.2 billion dollars from the corrections budget. They also have to figure out how to comply with a federal court order requiring California to cut its prison population by about 25 percent.

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This week, California lawmakers will begin an overhaul of some of the state's prison policies. They have no choice. They have to figure out how to cut $1.2 billion dollars from the prison budget. They also have to figure out how to comply with a federal court order requiring California to cut its prison population by about 25 percent. NPR's Ina Jaffe has more.

INA JAFFE: Earlier this month, a riot lasting more than three hours injured 175 inmates at the men's prison at Chino, east of Los Angeles. Dozens were sent to the hospital, some with stab wounds. One of the barracks-like buildings was destroyed by fire. It'll cost five to $6 million to repair the damage done to the others. The main cause of the riot? Matt Cate, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says it was overcrowding.

Secretary MATT CATE (Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): It's certainly true that when you run a prison system at 190 percent of its capacity, it makes everything, including security, much more difficult.

JAFFE: Cate toured the area just hours after the riot.

Mr. CATE: All the mattresses were thrown everywhere. There was flooding. The inmates had flooded the septic systems. Walls were torn apart, in many circumstances. There was a great deal of blood and debris scattered throughout the facility. It was really a tragic scene.

JAFFE: This week, lawmakers will discuss policy changes that could reduce California's prison population by some 27,000 inmates. Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg says that the state's profound cash crisis has presented them with an opportunity.

State Senator DARRELL STEINBERG (Democrat, Sacramento; Senate Leader): California has just gotten through a $62 billion deficit reduction over the past nine months, and Corrections needs to be part of it. And we can put public safety first, but do so in a much more cost-effective way that reduces the recidivism than what we're doing now. And so I'm looking forward to this.

JAFFE: The Democratic majority in the legislature and the administration of Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are on the same page, according to Steinberg. Their plan includes shortening the sentences of prisoners who complete job training or substance abuse programs and averting some nonviolent offenders to country jails or GPS monitoring. John Benoit, the senior Republican on the Senate Public Safety Committee, says that's just an early release program.

State Senator JOHN BENOIT (Republican, Riverside; Senate Public Safety Committee): And Republicans are not about releasing criminals who have violated the rights and lives and created havoc in California early.

JAFFE: Benoit says Republicans have better ideas: more layoffs of personnel, for example, getting the federal government to pay more for incarcerating illegal immigrant felons, and reducing the budget for prisoner medical care.

Senator BENOIT: We've got a Cadillac medical program going on now. We've got to find ways to provide necessary and appropriate levels of medical care, but it doesn't make any sense at all that we should be providing this kind of Cadillac prisoner health care.

JAFFE: But a federal court says overcrowding has made prison medical care inadequate. Earlier this month, it ordered the state to reduce the prison population by about 40,000 inmates over the next two years. The case was brought by the nonprofit Prison Law Office. Don Specter is the director.

Mr. DON SPECTER (Direct, Prison Law Office): The system is going to be reformed, whether the legislature does it in the upcoming weeks or whether the courts are forced to do it - one way or the other.

JAFFE: The state plans to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, but there appears to be no way around California's shortage of cash.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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