California’s Conflict with Federal Courts Shines A Light On Prisons

California’s prison dilemma is perhaps the most severe in the nation. Critics claim that twice as many prisoners are crammed into the state’s prison as is acceptable. A federal judicial panel has agreed with that assessment and demanded that the state come up with a plan to release 40,000 inmates over the next two years, as a necessary step in solving the problem of inadequate medical and mental health services.

Last week, the judges accepted  Governor Schwarzenegger’s offer to resolve the conflict (previously rejected by the legislature), but the judges postponed the effective date of their order pending U.S. Supreme Court consideration of it. Among other provisions, the governor’s plan would, allow some prisoners to be transferred to county jail, reduce penalties for some property thefts, allow expanded home detention, and in a more recent proposal (highlighted in his state of the state speech) transfer prisoners to privately run prisons (Details of Court Decision)

Without getting into the minutia of California’s prison disaster, it is instructive to the nation, and  points to an overwhelming need to take a fresh look at how we sentence, incarcerate, and release inmates from our jails and prisons. In California, there is $45 million dollars alone, available through Federal Cal EMA funding (largely federal stimulus funds), to explore ways to use probation based courts to keep offenders out of prison in the first place, and an additional $10 million available to investigate ways the courts can, for the first time, be part of the prison reentry process. These funds are clearly the tip of the iceberg, with $100 million in “Second Chance Act” funds and perhaps another $300 million in federal funds available nationwide (and that’s likely only the beginning of the reentry funding stream). Clearly, these are extraordinary times that offer both probation and prison-based reentry courts once in a life time opportunities, to provide innovative alternatives to failed prison policies.

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