Santa Barbara County District Attorney Christie Stanley and the district attorneys of 15 other California counties have filed a lawsuit charging that possible plans to release as many as 40,000 inmates from state prison to alleviate overcrowding in California’s notoriously overwhelmed prison system would seriously threaten public safety.
If the inmates were released to the counties of origin in proportion to the number now behind bars, Stanley said, Santa Barbara County could find itself scrambling to deal with 400 convicted criminals. “And that’s only part of the problem,” she added. “They’re also talking about not accepting any new prisoners. That means we’d have to keep them in county jail. And we all know there’s no room in the county jail as it is.” The “they” to whom Stanley referred is the panel of three federal judges just appointed by U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson to take drastic action in response to California’s prison overcrowding crisis. Although the prison population has increased by nearly 70,000 since 1990, only two new prisons have been built in that time. Henderson ruled earlier this year that prison overcrowding had grown so desperate that inmates could no longer count on the bare minimum in medical care. He also rejected arguments that the $7.8 billion in bonds for new prison construction would be sufficient to address the immediate problem; new prisons and programs designed to meet the state’s 70 percent recidivism rate remain many years away. On July 27, Henderson appointed the panel of federal judges to take whatever steps were needed to rectify the problem, up to and including the release of 40,000 inmates.
Stanley said she’s joining with other district attorneys to intervene in the case, which began in the mid 1990s on behalf of inmates complaining about poor conditions. She noted that last year, Santa Barbara sent 970 inmates to state prison. Most of those, she said, were for real offenses, and not just technical violations. Annually, Stanley said, the state sends about 1,000 parolees back to Santa Barbara. Stanley acknowledged that prison overcrowding constitutes a serious problem, but added, “I don’t think opening the door is the answer.”
Instead, Stanley lauded Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for passage of AB 900, which set aside serious money for rehabilitation efforts as well as new prison construction. Stanley pointed out that Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown is currently negotiating with state officials for the funds needed to build a 500-bed facility in North County to prepare state prisoners with the skills needed to be reintroduced back into civil society and not commit subsequent offenses.
Critics of the state’s prison system contend California’s burgeoning inmate population stems from a spate of get-tough-on-crime laws passed by the State Legislature in the early 1990s, especially the three-strikes measure passed by the voters in 1994. Stanley attributed the escalating prison population to California’s general population increase during the past 15 years. She said bills like three strikes have taken serious predators off the streets-even if for less-than-serious offenses. Stanley said she regards the plan to address prison overcrowding by wholesale early release as “an imminent threat.” Though unsure of what stopgap, quick fixes the district attorneys might recommend in lieu of early release, Stanley said alternatives might be forthcoming if prosecutors were granted the legal standing to intervene-both in the pending release and the overcrowding problem in general.