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What 2015 holds for Calif. corrections

Here’s a quick review of California corrections in 2014

Several things have been noteworthy in the Corrections environment in California this year.

Realignment is still running strong, if not straight and true. Governor Brown got an extension on the prison population cap from the federal courts, but part of the deal was no further extensions, delays or appeals. This situation has been eased somewhat by the more-or-less opening of two very large prison hospitals outside of Stockton with a total bed count of about 3,200.

I say more-or-less as intake was shut down into the larger facility by order of the federal receiver, who also ordered that the smaller hospital not open, until they could demonstrate they could function. These facilities are still not hospitals in the traditional sense as surgery and a great many other things are done outside the facility, resulting in large numbers of expensive and difficult to schedule transports every day.

Recent court action has effectively further decriminalized drug crimes. The biggie, however, has been Proposition 47, which was passed by the voters by a very wide margin on November 4.

This initiative reclassifies many former felonies as misdemeanors and allows persons currently in prison for these felonies to petition for resentencing. This will effectively move about 5,000 people from state prison to the streets, possibly in very short order. The process has in fact started in both the state system and many jurisdictions, even before the vote tally is official.

This proposal effectively moves more and more formerly felonious criminal conduct into the realignment arena. That means those sentenced under the new law will do time in local custody rather than state prison. Due to serious local overcrowding in most jurisdictions it may mean many will serve only a small fraction of their sentence.

One of the more interesting effects of this change (for the benefit of those who voted for this proposal) is that, if a person is found in the possession of a stolen firearm of value under $950 dollars, the officer can do nothing but seize the firearm and write a citation for the suspect to appear in court.

In addition, during this year the state has acquired two formerly private prisons and converted their staff to civil service on a more-or-less wholesale basis, resulting in several hundred additional beds available within the system.

Furthermore, the state has recently settled a lawsuit regarding mass lockdowns following incidents. The department has agreed to no longer lock down (or release from lockdown) all members of a racial or ethnic group based solely on their racial or ethnic identification. In addition, the state agreed to provide for outdoor exercise for affected inmates when lockdowns run more than 14 days.

Allegedly the policies and procedures for implementing this procedure have been in preparation since May of this year. Lockdowns would still be permitted based on documented gang membership. Such membership is largely based on ethnic identity. While this will not increase or decrease the number of persons in custody it has the potential to drastically affect management of the prisons.

The challenges of operating a prison system in a constantly changing legal environment with an unpredictable population is not unlike running a hotel with little control over how many guests check in and check out or how long they stay. The management has less and less ability to control the behavior of the guests while they are there, due to the federal courts telling management how to run much of the business.

The situation is unlikely to improve (stabilize) in the near future.

Bob Walsh worked for 24 years with the California Department of Corrections at Deuel Vocational Institution located near Tracy, California. He retired in early 2005. Since then he has been taking classes, exercising his obsolete camera equipment, rusticating and writing for the PacoVilla web site which focuses on issues within what is now called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr) and within the union representing CDCr employees, the California Correctional Peace Officer’s Association (CCPOA).