Tuesday, June 25, 2013, Editorial • Don’t shift responsibility for prison nightmare to local governments

Publisher’s note: This editorial originally appeared in the Tuesday, June 25, 2013, edition of the Lassen County Times.

After something like 20 years of wrangling, a panel of three federal judges last week ordered the state of California to release nearly 10,000 inmates from its state prisons by year’s end.

The issue centers on the conditions in which approximately 110,000 inmates live — conditions the U.S. Supreme Court determined were nothing short of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Last week the federal judges ordered the state to reduce the number of prisoners to 137 percent of capacity. Current estimates put the capacity at something like 150 percent.

The federal judges ordered the state to create a list of so-called low-risk inmates to be released by the first of the year.

Governor Brown issued a statement last week that he had no intention of releasing state prisoners in the near future, and he will seek a stay of the judges’ order.

The governor rightly disagrees with the judges’ opinion the release of so many inmates would not affect public safety.

Inmates convicted of crimes and sentenced to state prison have no right to expect their imprisonment will be a holiday. No one serving time in prison should expect a pleasant experience. In paying their debt to society they suffer a loss of freedom and spend their days and nights in the company of other felons, many of whom have committed violent and heinous crimes. Prison is not a picnic.

But while they are incarcerated as wards of the state, these inmates also have a right to the protections guaranteed by the U.S. and California constitutions. They need to be housed, fed and clothed and receive medical and mental health care treatment when necessary — a central issue in a 2009 court ruling. They may be inmates, but they remain human beings and should be treated as such while incarcerated.

Lassen County is only one of 58 counties in the state assuming additional responsibilities to solve the state’s prison nightmare. Through a process called Realignment, the counties’ probation departments have already assumed responsibility for supervision of inmates during their parole from prison.

Sentencing guidelines also have changed. Many inmates who would have served prison terms in the past will now serve their time in county jails.

Funding for these mandated changes by the state has not been guaranteed.

For years Sacramento has created other programs and ordered services the state does not adequately fund. This needs to stop.

The state can’t continue to solve its problems by passing them on to the counties and local governments. We’re already burdened enough with rules and regulations from Sacramento.

If the state can’t resolve its issues with the federal court and figure out a way to manage its own prison system effectively, local governments should not be the entities to solve this problem for them. We’ve given enough already, and we don’t have the resources to take on duties that rightly belong to the state.

This is a state issue, not a local one, and simply casting another 10,000 inmates the state can’t handle back into society is not a solution. It’s simply a way to create an even larger burden for local governments that should give us all pause.