prison.jpgLocal sheriffs braced for a possible influx of inmates at local jails after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the state of California would need to reduce its prison population by as many as 40,000 inmates.

The high court ruled in a 5-4 decision that overcrowding in California’s prisons “creates unsafe and unsanitary living conditions that hamper effective delivery of medical and mental health care,” and said the state has “failed to meet prisoner’s basic health needs.”

The court upheld an order issued by a three-judge panel last year that required California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of its capacity – to around 110,000 inmates – within two years.

The state currently houses nearly 144,000 inmates in 33 adult prisons that were built to hold 80,000. The state will need to release or transfer at least 34,000 prisoners to comply with the court’s order, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate said today.

The details of how that will be carried out are still being determined, Cate said.

“On an immediate level we have about two weeks to issue a plan on how we will comply,” Cate said.

According to the department of corrections and Gov. Jerry Brown’s office, a majority of the prison population reduction could be achieved by a realignment plan outlined in Assembly Bill 109, which the governor signed in April.

“That will account for a large number,” Cate said.

The realignment plan would divert low-risk offenders and parole violators out of state prisons and into local jails or community-based programs.

“I think our goal is not to release inmates at all,” Cate said.

“Realignment itself would not result in early release.”

San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks said he wasn’t surprised by today’s ruling, and that realignment was the only plan being proposed that would allow the state to comply with the decision.

“Going forward, certain classes of inmates will be doing their time at county jails,” Munks said.

Under realignment, the sheriff said that approximately 360 inmates could be added annually to an already overcrowded jail system.

Munks said today’s ruling puts added pressure on plans to build a new jail with an appropriate amount of beds in San Mateo County.

“It makes the need more urgent,” he said.

Sheriff Michael Hennessey said that San Francisco is prepared to accommodate the potential influx of inmates resulting from the proposed realignment plan.

“San Francisco is fortunate in having a reasonable amount of jail space right now,” Hennessey said. “We have about 400 empty beds.”

Alameda County sheriff’s Lt. J.D. Nelson said it was impossible to predict the impact of today’s ruling before the state hands down more specific details on how it will be implemented and how many inmates will be transferred.

“Until we find out what numbers the state is going to transfer to us and what money will be behind those numbers, it’s difficult to know what impact it’s going to have,” Nelson said.

Chris Cooney, Bay City News

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