Would the early release of about a third of Calfornia's more than 150,000 prison inmates affect public safety?
is the question before a three-judge federal panel now weighing a
lawsuit claiming that conditions in the state's 33-facility prison
system are unconstitutionally dangerous. Filed on behalf of sick and
mentally ill inmates, the suit contends that overcrowding means inmates
are not getting the care they desperately need and to which they are
But early release of 52,000 of those inmates is a cure that's worse than the disease.
Assuming the state does not layoff substantial numbers of its correctional staff, the 100,000 inmates remaining in the system after such a move would likely get better care than the population now shoehorned between California's prison walls.
The problems would instead shift to the state's sheriffs, police chiefs, parole agents and probation officers. It is they who would have to deal with the sudden influx released prisoners and their propensity to reoffend.
For this reason, Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele and District Attorney Donald Segerstrom have joined counterparts around the state in "intervening" in the pending case. Their lawyers, arguing that the consequences early release outweigh the benefits, hope to convince the judges to reject early release.
"It's going to be pushing it back to the county level and we don't have the resources to handle that problem," said Mele.
Granted, a very small fraction of the low-risk inmates to be released would settle in Tuolumne or Calaveras counties. Although the Jamestown-based Sierra Conservation Center could conceivably lose a third of its inmates, most prisoners would return to homes in the Central Valley, Bay Area and Southern California.
On the other hand, inmates convicted here would likely return to their home turf. The numbers, on their surface, are underwhelming.
Assuming the state's inmate population is in direct proportion to its general population, about 90 early-release inmates out of the statewide 52,000 would settle in Tuolumne County and somewhat fewer in Calaveras.
But given the comparatively infinitesimal size of the two counties, the impact would still be substantial.
Los Angeles County, for instance, has a jail capacity of 18,000. Tuolumne County's lockup can house 140, meaning each added inmate has a proportionally far greater impact. And the state's recidivism rate is now 70 percent - meaning more than 60 of those released here are likely to reoffend.
Also, statistics show the nonviolent inmates slated for release are even more likely to be repeat offenders than the rapists and murderers who will stay in the state system. Which means more burglary, more vandalism, more drugs and more burden on local deputies, jail and courts.
Still, the federal judges are charged with fixing a system that is clearly overburdened and dysfunctional. Medical care is certainly insufficient, and has been for years. There is, no doubt, plenty of blame to spread around, but county criminal justice systems did not create the problems in the state's prisons and should not be penalized in a misguided effort to fix them.
Opponents of the release plan, including Tuolumne County DA Segerstrom, point out that a AB 900 - a $7.7 billion construction and reform package approved last year - should first be given a chance to work.
Also, the judges should not forget that economic times are tough and all of us who rely on government services are asked to do with less. State prison inmates, whose daily care costs taxpayers more than $120 apiece, should carry their share of that burden.