Courts & Crime

Way to ease prison overcrowding stumps California

This is the state of California's prison system today: 143,435 inmates in state prisons, and a court order giving officials five months to trim that number to 133,016.

How that will be accomplished is still a mystery.

"We are out of time and we're out of room," Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said Tuesday in a stark assessment. "We've got to get this done."

The state has been under the gun for years to do something about the chronic overcrowding problems inside its 33 adult prisons. But last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming the sorry state of prison overcrowding has added new urgency to the situation.

Gov. Jerry Brown envisions solving the problem by shifting tens of thousands of low-level inmates to the supervision of county sheriffs, and he already has signed legislation to allow that.

But his plan for funding the "realignment" hinges on a proposed budget that includes extensions of state tax hikes imposed in 2009, and Brown has been unable to garner Republican support for that proposal.

Without a budget agreement or some magical fiscal fix that appears out of the blue, prison officials say they have two options in the coming months: Ask for an extension from the court or risk a court order requiring the release of more than 10,000 inmates in the fall.

"I think it's scary to everyone, and it would be an irresponsible approach," Cate said Tuesday as his department filed a report in federal court outlining how it is handling inmate population reductions.

Whether the situation truly is as dire as prison officials say is a matter of debate. Opponents of the tax extensions proposed by the governor say Tuesday's media conference was an exercise in politics.

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