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Supreme Court ruling may add to county jail crowding


Published: May 27, 2011

THIS WEEK’S U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering the California prison system to reduce its inmate population by 32,000 within the next two years could mean as many as 400 more new prisoners in the Monterey County Jail, a rundown facility already bursting at the seams.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that medical and mental health care in California prisons have fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and have failed to meet the basic health needs of some prisoners.

“Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion.

The Supreme Court decision upheld an earlier ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal that California had to release up to 46,000 prisoners. Since that decision, the state has transferred thousands of inmates to county jails, leaving the total prison population about 32,000 more than the court-imposed limit.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has said the state could comply with the Supreme Court ruling — and avoid releasing dangerous criminals — by transferring thousands more convicts of less serious crimes and parole violators to county jail facilities.

But that would have a huge impact on Monterey County Jail, which has a capacity of 829 beds, according to Jeff Budd, the jail’s interim chief deputy.

“I am approximately over 130 percent of my capacity today with 1,060 inmates,” Budd said. “I foresee a rise in my inmate population to the tune of 200 to 400 more inmates from the 33,000 state prison inmates being released over the next two years.”

Current recidivism rate for the county is 74 percent, which means most of the state prison inmates who serve their time in Monterey County Jail will likely commit more crimes and end up back there.

“I can reasonably assure you that two-thirds of this population will return to my facility very quickly,” Budd said.

In the meantime, the county is waiting for a portion of $600 million in taxpayer money the state is supposed to hand out to add more jail and prison beds. But there’s no timeline on when the money will arrive, and it’s unclear how much Monterey County will receive.

Budd said the sheriff’s office will do what it can to support the influx of inmates the jail expects over the next two years.

“We just met with a jail building vendor today and for the next few weeks will talk to others to see what is available out there for immediate construction to add on to our current facility,” Budd said.

He called for more to be done to help released inmates so they don’t return to jail.

“I think the County of Monterey needs to ramp up its job-building resources and find programs for housing and medical/drug programs,” he said.

The possibility of getting hundreds more inmates at the jail comes at a time when staff at the sheriff’s office could be reduced. The sheriff’s office is facing budget cuts of about $8.4 million for the next fiscal year.

“We have had to notify 28 people that they may be laid off or demoted.” Budd said.

Sharp dissent

The Supreme Court justices were sharply divided in Monday’s decision.

In his decision, Justice Kennedy said, “The medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons falls below the standard of decency that inheres in the Eighth Amendment,” which bans cruel and unusual punishment.

Kennedy’s opinion was backed by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote “terrible things” are “sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.” He also objected that courts should not substitute their judgment for the expertise of prison officials. And he said many of the prisoners to be released from state prisons will have suffered no ill effects from overcrowding, but will simply be “happy-go-lucky felons fortunate enough to be selected.”

Also dissenting were Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

The American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project lauded the ruling.

“The Supreme Court has done the right thing by acknowledging what even the state itself has not disputed — that the egregious and extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons contribute to a failure by the state to keep its prisoners safe by providing the basic levels of medical and mental health care mandated by the U.S. Constitution,” according to the ACLU’s prison project director, David Fathi, in a prepared statement.