After a year of defying court orders to alleviate the state’s prison crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown seems to have finally pushed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to its limit. In an April 11 ruling, having already “exercised exceptional restraint,” the exasperated federal judges declared the state “will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States,” giving Brown until May 2 to develop a plan that will reduce the prison population by nearly 10,000 people by the end of the year.
Brown struck back, vowing to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court “so we don’t have to let out those 10,000 people.”
The implication that releasing “those people” will compromise public safety has no foundation in reality. According to the CDCR’s validated risk assessment, nearly 55,000 of the state’s inmates present a “low risk” of recidivism, the lowest risk category possible. Keeping low-risk inmates behind bars does not enhance public safety; in fact, doing so may endanger the public, as excessive prison terms hamper reentry, damage families, and weaken communities.
To meet the court’s mandate by the end of the year, Brown needs to begin releasing identified low-risk inmates now – a step both the federal and the U.S. Supreme Court agree “would be consistent with public safety.” Here are two ways Brown can safely, justly, and dramatically reduce the prison population by the end of the year:
- Release low-risk Lifers who are past their minimum eligible parole dates. California has nearly 26,000 people serving life in prison with the possibility of parole, or “Lifers.” 77 percent of these Lifers are classified as low risk – including 9,000 people who have already passed their minimum eligible parole dates (e.g., 15 years on a 15 years-to-Life sentence). Moreover, former Lifers have the lowest recidivism risk of all classes of inmates, with a “minuscule” likelihood of committing another crime. The incarceration of low-risk Lifers who have already “done the time” does nothing to enhance public safety, and Brown should take immediate action to release these men and women from prison.
- Restore good time credits. Lifers are not the only prisoners with a low risk of recidivism – 34,000 other California inmates fall into this category, including about 9,000 Second Strikers and 15,000 people serving non-life sentences for violent crimes. Restoring good time credits (time off for good behavior) incentivizes rehabilitation and is a reasonable way to reduce these sentences without adversely affecting public safety. In the 1970s, prisoners could halve their sentences with good behavior. Now, most people convicted of violent offenses must serve 85 percent of their terms and Second Strikers must serve 80 percent. According to an analysis submitted to the federal judges, if Second Strikers and violent offenders could reduce their sentences by 34 percent with good behavior, 9,000 people could be released from prison with “no significant adverse impact.”
These reforms would result in an immediate and safe reduction in the prison population, and would even allow the state to bring back its 8,500 inmates housed in private out-of-state facilities. Brown’s long-term plan should also include sentencing reform, parole reform, tightening standards for Realignment, and extending good time credits to Third Strikers, who currently receive none (thus bringing most low-risk Third Strikers up for parole).
The governor has complained that he cannot make changes in sentencing or good time credits without legislative approval – yet has “made no effort to seek the needed legislation,” the judges found. To achieve a prison system that enhances public safety and respects human dignity, he needs to begin that process now.
Lizzie Buchen is a member of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) policy team. She holds an M.S. in neuroscience from UCSF and has worked in journalism and prisoner rehabilitation.
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