Federal court: get ready to release 44,000 California inmates

This was coming. There’s a way to deal with prison crowding without increasing crime: get better at parole supervision. But California is moving in exactly the wrong direction.

A special three-judge panel the Federal District Courts for Eastern and Northern California The 9th Circuit has ordered California to prepare a plan to reduce its prison headcount from the current 158,000 (188% of rated capacity) to 114,000 (130%). Unfortunately, the “Three Strikes” law makes it impossible to start by letting out some of the geriatric cases who would pose the smallest public-safety risk if released.

It wouldn’t be hard to shrink prison populations drastically while reducing crime, by doing a better job of supervising prison releasees on parole using drug-testing and position monitoring with swift and certain, but mild, sanctions for each violation of the rules. But the current discussion is all about shortening parole and reducing the rate of revocations.

Eliminating parole revocations for technical violations (other than absconding) makes sense. But unless the threat of revocation is replaced by something else, parole conditions become meaningless. (The same is true of probation: one way to shrink the prison population would be to put more felons on probation, but for that to make sense probation has to mean something.)

Tight supervision can reduce the time parolees spend behind bars by preventing new crimes. That’s the big finding from Project HOPE in Hawaii.http://www.issues.org/24.4/kleiman.html So far, though, there’s no indication that the Governor or the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are thinking along those lines. Instead they’ll fight the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, and then blame the judges when their failure to do their jobs leads to a crime increase.

Update Thanks to a reader for the correction; none of the newspapers specified the court, and when I see “three-judge panel” and read that the next step is the Supreme Court I assume the ruling is from on of the Circuit Courts of Appeal. But it turns out that the Prison Litigation Reform Act requires a three-judge panel of the District Court, with a direct appeal to the Supremes. Here’s the opinion.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.