California will seek to move thousands of inmates to private prisons in a last-ditch attempt to avoid releasing violent offenders to ease prison crowding, the state corrections chief said Monday.
The state will take the step after the U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to delay a lower court order requiring California to free nearly 10,000 inmates by year's end, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Associated Press.
Beard said the state will soon ask a lower federal court to permit the state to house at least 4,000 inmates in privately operated cells in California and other states.
There are enough additional beds available to avoid most if not all of the early releases that would otherwise occur, he said. The beds are in two community correctional facilities within California, in private prisons in other states, and in several county jails with excess capacity, he said.
The state already houses nearly 9,000 inmates in private prisons in other states.
Although it's expensive to do, Beard says it's a better option than freeing inmates before they complete their full prison terms.
California already reduced its prison population by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006, the majority because of a 2-year-old state law that sentences lower level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons.
“We don't have an awful lot of these low risk, less serious people left in our system and so we're very concerned about who we might have to release if we go that way,'' Beard said in a telephone interview.
State officials don't like paying to keep offenders in out-of-state prisons where they are far from home, yet, “I'd prefer to do more of that than to early release inmates,'' he said.
Beard said the lower court would have to give its permission for the state to add more prison beds as an alternative to other approved options that would lead to early releases. The alternatives include expanding good-time credits leading to early release for more than 4,000 inmates and granting early parole to 400 sick and elderly inmates.
The state has said it could take those steps along with other measures, including expanding firefighting camps, opening a new health care facility in Stockton, and slowing the return of inmates housed in other states. The options together would be more than enough to meet the courts' requirement that the state reduce the prison population to about 110,000 inmates, yet each also has financial or public safety complications.
The court would have to waive state law and the state constitution to permit the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to spend money to house the inmates in private facilities without an appropriation from the Legislature, Beard said.
He said the administration is likely to ask lawmakers to approve spending the money.
Legislative leaders have said they are reluctant to do so, but Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, told reporters Monday that lawmakers plan to work with Gov. Jerry Brown on the state's response. Leaders of both political parties and in both the Assembly and Senate must discuss with the Democratic governor “what all is possible and what there is the will to get done,'' Perez said.