Judges should not be deciding to cap prison population

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By now we're used to it: Federal judges managing California's overcrowded prison system because administrators and legislators have failed to do the job.

Judicial intervention is often spurred by inmate lawsuits claiming that the way they are treated behind bars is cruel, unusual or otherwise illegal. Sometimes it is warranted, as conditions in California's 32-facility prison system have slipped as its population has risen to nearly double capacity.

But the specter of a court-ordered inmate population cap and the consequent release of tens of thousands of prisoners has rightfully galvanized opposition on the county level. Sheriffs and district attorneys from throughout California have asked that a three-judge panel appointed to address prison crowding hold off until a $7.8 billion plan proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature is given a chance to work.

Tuolumne and Calaveras county prosecutors and cops are behind the move.

"It would just completely overload every sheriff up and down the state," said Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele of the feared inmate cap.

He's right: Although a cap and the mass-release of inmates would almost instantly ease prison crowding, it would come at a prohibitive price. The discharged prisoners have to go somewhere, and neither of the two alternatives on the street or in already jammed county jails is acceptable.

Sure, the inmates to be released would be "low risk." But the term is relative: That they are in prison at all means they were convicted of at least one felony, that a judge decided that bargaining it down to a misdemeanor was unjustified and that no combination of probation and county jail time proved an acceptable alternative to prison.

The bottom line: These inmates, as everyone in the criminal justice system agreed, should serve their time in prison and not on Sonora's Washington Street or Angels Camp's Main Street.

But why not simply transfer them to the county jail, a devil's advocate might ask.

A look at the old and cramped jails in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties answers that question. Both are small and unable to accommodate even the criminals of our own communities. In Calaveras County, and to a lesser extent Tuolumne, limited capacities lead to a "revolving door" situation in which inmates are released after serving only a small fraction of their sentences or, in some cases, no time at all.

Add just released state inmates to the mix, and our jails would have to release even more criminals to make room for the influx of prison transfers. The message, already on the street, would become even louder: If you do crime, you won't have to do the time.

Judges charged with managing our 173,000-inmate system should not adopt a simplistic inmate cap that will only pass the problems down to county jails even less able to handle them. Any judicially imposed solution should see beyond the prison walls and to consequences at the local roots of the criminal justice system.

But first, as sheriffs and DAs around the state have suggested, let's give Gov. Schwarzenegger's $7.8 billion, 53,000-bed prison expansion plan a chance to work.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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