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Reducing Calif. Prison Population

Reducing Calif. Prison Population

GLORIA PENNER (Host): There are nearly twice as many inmates in California prisons than the system was built for. The state prison crisis is the focus of KPBS's Envision series. Joining me now to explain a recent Supreme Court ruling and the history behind the prison crisis is KPBS Reporter Joanne Faryon. Thanks for coming in.

JOANNE FARYON (KPBS Reporter): Thanks for having me.

PENNER: So, why does the state have to reduce its prison population in the first place?

FARYON: Well, Gloria, it really is all about health care. Back in 2002, a firm that represented ... a law firm representing inmates sued the state over health care claiming that inmates did not have access to health care in prisons. And in fact, they won. So, the courts got involved with the prison system. Fast-forward to 2006, the court said, "Wait a minute, you haven't fixed the problem. They're still not getting access." So, they put a Receiver in charge of all of health care in the prison system in California.

PENNER: Excuse me, Receiver? What is a Receiver?

FARYON: Well, it's a federally appointed Receiver, Clark Kelso, it's a receivership that basically takes all of health care out of the hands of the state because they said, 'Look, State, you're not providing what you ought to be providing,' and they took it over. That was in 2006. So, let's move forward to 2008. Inmates are still not getting the kind of access they ought to. A federal panel of three judges intervene. And they say, 'You know what? The problem really is: There are so many inmates in the prisons. It's so overcrowded, they're never going to have access.' And that's when we got the court ruling that says, reduce your overall population.

PENNER: But, the state's already done something in response to that order to reduce population. What have they done?

FARYON: Well, first of all, they tried to appeal this court ruling, and that's what we saw happen this week. They went to the Supreme Court and they basically argued that this panel of judges didn't have the authority really to make this ruling. The Supreme Court actually dismissed that appeal. However, the state also plans to appeal the order to redudce it's inmate population. So, that's the one that's really going to matter in the long run. Like you say, though. The state has moved forward in terms of trying to reduce inmate population. They've introduced some parole reform. Now, it's some low-level offenders won't necessarily go back to prison. They also have plans to build a new billion-dollar prison to house elderly inmates and sick inmates. They have plans to transfer some inmates out of state. So, they also have plans to expand some existing prisons to make more room.

PENNER: Now, this part, I don't understand. Ok, sending prisoners out of state, that would reduce the population. Changing the parole system, that might reduce the population, but how will building new prisons and expanding prisons reduce the population?

FARYON: Well, really what's at issue is capacity. The 33 prisons in California are meant to house 100,000 inmates and right now there are 170,000 inmates in those prisons. So, we're talking about capacity. When you really look at the court ruling, it says, 'You've got to reduce that capacity. You've got to get it down to a 137 percent, which means it's still going to be crowded, but not as crowded as it is. So, by creating more space, you're going to reduce crowding and also, you're going to have in theory, fewer inmates going into prison.

PENNER: Well, in theory, but meanwhile, they're still planning on building more prisons or expanding prisons.

FARYON: And, part of the reason that they have to address this issue in construction is because a lot of the inmates that we're seeing now are elderly and they need health care. So, even if you reduce overall population, you still have to have these so-called "chronic care beds" and that's also what the prison system is lacking, and again, it speaks to health care. So, you need a place to put these frail, old, sick inmates so even if you reduce your overall population, you don't necessarily have enough those spaces.

PENNER: And it's the older inmates, the sick inmates that need more medical care. They're the ones that are really costing the state more money aren't they?

FARYON: Absolutely, right now the receivership's newest budget figures, $2 billion in terms of how much they're spending in providing health care to inmates. And I have to tell you, it's nearly doubled in the last three years. So when the Receiver took over in 2006, that budget was about $1 billion. Now it's approaching $2 billion.

PENNER: Just briefly, Joanne. This is in federal court, is it expected to go to the Supreme Court?

FARYON: Well, that's where the state filed their appeal, so should know this year, the result of that. And in the meantime, this federal court order that says 'Reduce your prison population.' That is suspended. Even though the state is putting in some of these reforms, that clock that is ticking, that deadline that was initially imposed by the federal court, that is on hold. That will buy them some time.

PENNER: Okay, thank you very much, Joanne Faryon.