In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California prison overcrowding constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, California began warehousing low-level offenders—including shoplifters, drug offenders, and others who have committed nonviolent, nonsexual crimes—in county jails or even under house arrest.
California has about 140,000 people in prisons, which are at 125 to 225 percent capacity. The Supreme Court gave the state until June 2013 to reduce its prisoner population by 33,000 people.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Dana Toyama says the inmate population will be reduced “by attrition.” Every month 10,000 prisoners complete their sentences, so California can meet the deadline by sentencing a larger share of new convicts to jail or home confinement rather than prison, Toyama said. If the state does nothing, she notes, the Supreme Court “can order a wholesale release of inmates.”
The financial burden of the shift to local incarceration worries some. Gov. Jerry Brown unsuccessfully lobbied to have funding for the projected 34 percent rise in local jail populations guaranteed in the state constitution so it can never be eliminated by budget cuts. Some local sheriffs and jail officials would like that too, and fear that the $400 million allocated for the program’s first fiscal year may not be enough.