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Supreme Court Orders California to Release Tens of Thousands of Prison Inmates

Computer Errors Allow Violent California Prisoners to be Released Unsupervised

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June 2011

Supreme Court Orders California to Release Tens of Thousands of Prison Inmates


Click the following link to view Supervisor Ovitt's Video:
http://www.sbcounty.gov/bosd4/multimedia/ViewVideo.aspx?vid=197

On May 23, 2011, the Supreme Court ordered California to release tens of thousands of its prisoners to relieve overcrowding, saying that "needless suffering and death" had resulted from putting too many inmates into facilities that cannot hold them in decent conditions.

The 5-4 decision represents one of the largest prison release orders in U.S. history. The court majority says overcrowding has caused 'suffering and death.' In a sharp dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia warned 'terrible things are sure to happen.'

It is one of the largest prison release orders in the nation's history, and it sharply split the high court.

Justices upheld an order from a three-judge panel in California that called for releasing 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners. Since then, the state has transferred about 9,000 state inmates to county jails. As a result, the total prison population is now about 32,000 more than the capacity limit set by the panel.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said California's prisons had "fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements" because of overcrowding. As many as 200 prisoners may live in gymnasium, he said, and as many as 54 prisoners share a single toilet.

Kennedy insisted that the state had no choice but to release more prisoners. The justices, however, agreed that California officials should be given more time to make the needed reductions.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling "staggering" and "absurd."

He said the high court had repeatedly overruled the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for ordering the release of individual prisoners. Now, he said, the majority were ordering the release of "46,000 happy-go-lucky felons." He added that "terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order." Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with him.

In a separate dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the ruling conflicted with a federal law intended to limit the power of federal judges to order a release of prisoners.

State officials and lawyers for inmates differ over just how many prisoners will have to be released. In recent figures, the state said it had about 142,000 inmates behind bars, and the judges calculated the prison population would need to be reduced to about 110,000 to comply with constitutional standards.

Kennedy said the judges in California overseeing the prison-release order should "accord the state considerable latitude to find mechanisms and make plans" that are "consistent with the public safety."

The American Civil Liberties Union said the court had "done the right thing" by addressing the "egregious and extreme overcrowding in California's prisons."

David Fathi, director of the ACLU national prison project, said "reducing the number of people in prison not only would save the state taxpayers half a billion annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities."

Computer Errors Allow Violent California Prisoners to be Released Unsupervised

A computer system that lacked key information about inmates factored in the release of an estimated 450 prisoners with a "high risk of violence," according to the California inspector general.

Computer errors prompted California prison officials to mistakenly release an estimated 450 inmates with "a high risk for violence" as unsupervised parolees in a program meant to ease overcrowding, according to the state's inspector general.

More than 1,000 additional prisoners presenting a high risk of committing drug crimes, property crimes and other offenses were also let out, officials said.

No attempt was made to return any of the offenders to state lockups or place them on supervised parole, said inspector general spokeswoman Renee Hansen.

All of the prisoners were placed on "non-revocable parole," whose participants are not required to report to parole officers and can be sent back to prison only if caught committing a crime. The program was started in January 2010 for inmates judged to be at very low risk of reoffending, leaving parole agents free to focus on supervising higher-risk parolees.

The revelations come two days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California's prisons are dangerously overcrowded and upheld an earlier order that state officials find a way to reduce the 143,335-inmate population by roughly 33,000. The state has two years to comply.

Investigators reviewed case files for 200 of the 10,134 former inmates who were on non-revocable parole in July of last year. They found that 31 were not eligible, and nine of those were determined likely to commit violent crimes. The inspector general and corrections officials refused to identify the inmates who were released erroneously. They also would not specify what their original offenses had been.

Using the 15% error rate they found in their sample, investigators estimated that more than 450 violent inmates had been released during the first seven months of the program, the time period they reviewed. Prison officials have disputed the findings, saying they had corrected some of the computer problems discovered by the inspector general. The error rate is now 8%, the inspector general report says.

Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to address overcrowding would shift tens of thousands of low-level offenders from prison to county custody. Counties would also supervise most low-risk parolees, like those in the non-revocable program.

But if the state can't properly identify which inmates qualify for an unsupervised parole program, how can the public have confidence they can release 33,000 felons safely?

Under the law that created non-revocable parole, inmates are excluded if they are gang members, have committed sex crimes or violent felonies or have been determined to pose a high risk to reoffend based on an assessment of their records behind bars.

That's where the problems begin, according to the inspector general. The computer program prison officials used to make that assessment does not access an inmate's disciplinary history. The program also relies on a state Department of Justice system that records arrests but is missing conviction information for nearly half of the state's 16.4 million arrest records, according to the inspector general report.

An official with the state bureau of corrections acknowledged that the corrections department's computer system can't access an inmate's disciplinary record. But that information is reviewed manually by a staff member before prisoners are released, said a department spokesman.

The department went on to say that the missing conviction information from the Department of Justice database is a problem. That presents a serious issue for the entire criminal justice system, every judge, every probation officer, every cop on the street trying to decide whether to arrest someone.

In early June, a parolee named Javier Joseph Rueda, who had been classified a low-level offender and placed in the non-revocable program, opened fire on two Los Angeles police officers, hitting one in the arm. The police returned fire, killing Rueda.