In Sacramento, Governor Jerry Brown has been consumed by a political hot spot: a midnight Thursday deadline to tell a federal court how he's going to reduce prison crowding. The governor says the inmate population has already been significantly reduced. But the court says that isn't good enough. So, at the last minute, a defiant Brown gave the court his plan. Host Scott Shafer finds out what comes next from Michael Montgomery, reporter for KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Scott Shafer: Michael, first of all, what's at the heart of this issue?
Michael Montgomery: Well, you know Scott, we have been here a number of times talking about this issue, which is really about whether or not the state is providing adequate mental and medical health care for inmates. These cases go back ... one case goes back to 1990. The other case goes back to 2001. The state has been battling with the courts over this for years. We had the U.S. Supreme Court step in two years ago to affirm a lower court decision. It really boils down to this: The courts have determined the states cannot deliver adequate health care to inmates unless the population comes down to a certain point. And that level, the courts have said, is about 110,000 inmates.
Shafer: And the governor has said, 'Look, we've already reduced the inmate population.' And, what is he saying? We are running out of good options here?
Montgomery: The governor has said, as has Secretary Beard, that essentially this cap has become arbitrary. The governor in January pronounced the California prison health care system among the best in the nation, if not the world. And they are saying: Isn't that the aim of this whole process? To deliver adequate health care and mental health care. So, the governor and the Department of Corrections are saying, there is no constitutional problem here anymore.
Shafer: So, obviously Michael, the governor is not happy. The courts aren't happy. Is anyone satisfied with the direction that the administration is going here?
Montgomery: Well, certainly Scott, even before the governor's plan was announced on Thursday, we had protests by advocacy groups who were basically saying the governor isn't going nearly far enough here.
One person we heard from was Laura Mariani:
"We're really disappointed that the Brown administration seems to be leaning towards building more or creating more space, rather than really addressing the sentencing issues that could be addressed. The conditions that could be addressed. The many ways we could be reducing the population."
Shafer: Michael Montgomery, all the things the governor outlined in the plan they gave to the court. Can the governor, can the administration do these things unilaterally or does it need approval from somebody?
Montgomery: No. Many of these elements need to go to the Legislature. The governor himself says he doesn't support the plan. He's not going to go to bat for it.
Shafer: Well, he says it could compromise public safety.
Montgomery: Indeed. He says, the governor says, this could put dangerous felons on the streets early. Essentially, "early release." Other things they talked about as you mentioned. Putting higher-risk inmates in fire camps. Slowing the rate of inmates coming from out-of-state facilities. Perhaps leasing beds from jails. So, diverting more felons to jails. The governor has said that could put his whole realignment plan under pressure.
Shafer: County jails are already bulging in many places, aren't they?
Montgomery: They are, and there have been some efforts by lawmakers to tweak the realignment law to put more felons who are currently in jails back in state lockups, which would increase the prison population.
Shafer: Complicating all this is this fatal fungal disease that broke out in a couple prisons in the Central Valley. So, what does that do? Because now there's another 3000 or so inmates that have to be moved somewhere.
Montgomery: Correct. The health receiver, Clark Kelso, has ordered the state to move the most vulnerable inmates out of these facilities. The state is refusing to do so. Yet another court order. Yet another confrontation.
Shafer: Several dozen have died, right?
Montgomery: Three dozen inmates have died of this fungal disease since 2006. I asked Rebekah Evenson, she's a plaintiff's attorney with the Prison Law Office, about this:
"Any prison system, you need to leave room for this kind of emergency situation. And also non-emergency situations where you have new prisoners coming into the system. You need to have a place to put people that's safe and that doesn't unreasonably endanger their lives.
Shafer: Michael, doesn't the outbreak of this "valley fever" undermine the state's case that the health care conditions are so much better?
Montgomery: Well, it questions whether they can address a sort of emergency situation like this. Now that doesn't necessarily fall into the court order of providing constitutionally mandated health care, but as Rebekah Evenson said, and any prison administrator will tell you this, you need excess capacity. You need empty beds so you can move people around. What the state is essentially saying is that they are really running right to the edge of capacity, meaning they can't shift hundreds or thousands of inmates around because they are full.
Shafer: The governor is promising to appeal this up to the Supreme Court. Even though the court has already said, you've got to get this done.
Montgomery: The U.S. Supreme Court two years ago affirmed the lower court's ruling in this case and essentially ordered the state to meet this population cap. Essentially what that means is losing another 9,000 inmates by the end of the year. Now, the irony here is by the state's own admission, under this plan that has just been released, they won't even meet that target. So, where does this take us? Probably back to the courts.
Shafer: Just the latest chapter in a very long story. That's Michael Montgomery, reporter with KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting.