Judges debate problem of over-packed prisons

SAN FRANCISCO — Three federal judges seem convinced that overcrowding in California prisons is so bad it leads to unconstitutional conditions. Now they must weigh whether ordering the release of nearly a third of the state’s inmates would be a public safety nightmare.

The state stuffs its 33 adult prisons with nearly twice as many inmates as they were designed to house. Attorneys representing the inmates asked the judges on Thursday to order the state to trim about 52,000 inmates from the current population of 156,300 over the next two years.

Several weeks of testimony are scheduled on whether releasing inmates early will increase crime. The judges have already heard testimony on overcrowding.

Inmates attorneys argued that releasing prisoners would reduce violence in prison and the spread of contagious disease, end the need for housing inmates in gymnasiums and other makeshift areas, and improve treatment for mentally and physically ill inmates who now suffer and sometimes die of neglect.

They produced criminologists who said the state could cut its population safely by reducing the number of parolees sent back to prison for “technical” violations such as testing positive for drugs or failing to meet with a parole agent, and giving alternative sentences to criminals who currently serve short prison terms.

Freeing criminals earlier gives them more time to commit new crimes, said Jerry Powers, Stanislaus County’s chief probation officer.

Nonviolent inmates may be considered a lower risk to society, but they are statistically more likely to commit repeat property crimes. Murderers are more dangerous but are statistically unlikely to kill again, he said.

The judges may not make a decision until next year.

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